Nowadays, every novel seems to need a hook. Each one needs an interesting premise that can be summed up in a sentence or two and is likely to make the potential reader think, ‘Huh, I wonder how that’ll play out…’
For Darke, it’s this: an elderly former-lecturer shuts himself off from society, refusing to interact with his friends and family, even removing the letterbox from his front door. It’s an interesting set-up, sure, and it did make me pick up the book… But it’s ultimately a lot more interesting as an idea than as an actual piece of writing. It isn’t that compelling reading about James Darke, locked up in his house, isolated from society, and it’s when the novel moves on from this slightly gimmicky premise that it gets truly good.
Dr James Darke is a protagonist who tries to resist being liked by the reader in any way. He’s opinionated, prejudiced and acts unpleasantly towards everyone he meets. This is part of why the first half of the novel is so hard to read. Trapped in his house, with only him as company, the novel felt claustrophobic to me at times. We get to hear him ramble on about T.S. Eliot, his various ailments and the stains in his underwear. It’s uncomfortable. Though this is probably the effect that the author was aiming for, it doesn’t make the book any less unpleasant (and dull) to read at times. In this section of the novel, James Darke is relentlessly unappealing and it’s only when the novel opens up beyond his immediate world and the confines of his house that he begins to become sympathetic.
Most of the book’s best parts take place outside of the house the protagonist locks himself in. It’s when Rick Gekoski begins to reveal Darke’s relationship with his wife and daughter that the novel begins to become great. As Darke begins to reflect on his relationship with his wife – and eventually, after leaving the house, tries to reconnect with his daughter – he becomes a much more three-dimensional character. In many ways, it shows that the version of him that dominates the first half of the book, the version he tries to promote through his journal, is really just a façade. He isn’t heartless and self-centred, just broken. (In many ways, he feels like a slightly more complex version of Charles Dickens’ Scrooge, which I don’t think is accidental given the character’s obsession with that author…)
If anything, the novel proves that a good story doesn’t really need a gimmicky set-up to be interesting. It just needs good characters. Only when Darke stops trying to be clever, abandoning its gimmicky premise, and instead tries to tell the simple story of a man trying to reconnect with his daughter, does it really come into its own.