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Tragedy as comedy

Meet English teacher James Darke, a 60-year old grumpy, selfish, snob, as cynical, judgemental and politically incorrect as they come. Darke has decided to close the world out – literally – starting by drawing the curtains in his house, filling in the mail slot in his door and cancelling his email account. There are no limits to what Darke will do in his quest to be left alone, and that includes pretending to be deaf so he won’t need to talk to people. There is, of course, a reason for Darke’s dark behaviour, which, as it’s slowly revealed, turns out to be far from funny. If you, like me, enjoy dark humour, the occasional unpleasant character and many-layered stories, this book is for you.

Most builders, handy or otherwise, are incompetent, indolent and venal. I will not pay unless the job is done perfectly, on time and within estimate. I do not provide endless cups of PG Tips with three sugars, ta, nor do I engage in talk, small or large. Preferably no visits to my WC, though a builder who does not pee is rare. Tea makes pee. But if that is necessary, only in the downstairs cloakroom. Afterwards there will be piss under the loo.

Darke hates everything (the telly, natural light, the sound of the sea, Paddington train station, cats) and everyone (the neighbour, the neighbour’s dog, the housekeeper, the son-in-law) but most of all he hates himself. His chosen anti-depressant is literature, but not even books, it turns out, can save Darke.

Even when Darke’s underlying problem is revealed, it’s still clear that he’s fundamentally a disagreeable person. But we can’t help empathising with him for what he’s been through. And that’s what sustained my interest in this book. Novels with unpleasant characters are sometimes hard to like. But Gekoski finds just the right balance. In the Acknowledgements, Gekoski describes how Darke’s character inhabited him for months. You can feel this in the writing; he rises from the page, shouts and screams at you, ignores you and slams the door in your face. Darke is simply an incredibly vivid and memorable literary character.

The mood of this book swings like a pendulum, from hysterically funny to profoundly sad, leaving you feeling slightly guilty about having just laughed only to find yourself cracking up again. The ending is cathartic and proves there’s hope, even for the most cantankerous of us.

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