Book review: Darke Matter

Finely crafted tale of a magnificent curmudgeon


Darke Matter by Rick Gekoski (Constable, £16.99)

There is a decent case to be made for the notion that novelists write their best work before they are 50 (Tolstoy was only 41 when he wrote War and Peace). There are always exceptions to any such theory and Rick Gekoski stands out: after a long and varied career as an academic, an antiquarian bookseller, rare book publisher, newspaper columnist and non-fiction writer, he finally turned his hand to the novel after the age of 70. Perhaps he was just too busy before. That first novel, Darke, was well received and shortlisted for a couple of awards. Darke Matter is the sequel.

The first novel deals with the lingering death of retired schoolmaster James Darke’s wife Suzy, the second with the aftermath.

It transpires that Darke, a magnificently curmudgeonly figure who could no longer bear Suzy’s death agony, helped her on the way with a mixture of pills. The truth comes out accidentally (or perhaps not) via his insensitive son-in-law and the police are called in. A murder charge eventually ensues and Darke, refusing to plead to a lesser charge, becomes an unlikely poster boy for the right-to-die movement. The novel climaxes with his trial at the Old Bailey.

There is a charming and learned secondary plot involving Darke and his young grandson Rudy. Irked by contemporary parents’ reluctance to stretch their children with challenging reading matter (good man), Darke decides to try Rudy with Gulliver’s Travels as a bedtime story in instalments. The boy responds enthusiastically and demands more when Swift’s masterpiece comes to its abrupt end. So Darke writes the next volume himself, and Gekoski supplies him with a very entertaining pastiche of Swift. The theme of a man at odds with the country he has returned to after his travels echoes Darke’s own ordeal at the hands of the British authorities, media and public.

Gekoski writes with pace, wit and a lovely eye for telling detail. In James Darke, he has created a character who is both sympathetic and annoying, which is quite a feat, and his command of the issue of assisted dying is masterly. My only quibble is with Darke’s tone of voice (the novel is written in the first person).

It is moody, witty, fond of wordplay, with notes (as the wine buffs say) of Philip Roth, Mordecai Richler (Gekoski is American by birth), Howard Jacobson and Frederic Raphael — in other words, very Jewish and quite unlike any retired English schoolmaster I’ve ever come across.

But it makes for a fine read. It should go straight into the A-Level English syllabus as a set text.

It would at the very least stretch our teenagers’ minds in a way of which James Darke would approve.

Robert Low is executive editor of The Critic magazine

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive