Saturday 1 February 2003

The Nick of Time - (Man Booker Prize 2003)

Francis King

Chick and lad novels have made us used to London appearing as the backdrop to the feisty feminist Getting Her Man or the carefree bloke Settling Down. In his latest book, The Nick of Time, Francis King gives us another view of the city. From Gloucester Road to Dalston, he shows a vision of the capital that - in the past few years - has tended to become the preserve of noir crime writers.

Mehmet is a Kosovan, an illegal immigrant living in London. He lives with Meg, an elderly woman and MS sufferer who befriends him in the street. He has an affair with a woman doctor, Marilyn - he comes to her surgery seeking emergency treatment - but he’s also in a relationship with Adrian, a middle-aged, self-made wealthy homosexual man who picks him up in a gay pub. The doom-laden triangle may be a hallowed cliché, but the progress of its dissolution here is horribly fascinating. The stage is set for betrayal - and worse.

King writes without any concessions to human sentimentality or political correctness. Mehmet is quick to bandy accusations of racism whenever he doesn’t get the handout or treat that he demands. He welcomes any chance for a quick dishonest buck, and the threat of violence lurks beneath his self-serving, self-righteous outbursts. Marilyn cannot admit to him that there are areas of her life that she can’t share with him as he is deeply unintellectual, but knows that she’ll always do what he wants. The elderly are not shown as repositories of wisdom but as weak vessels who seem to have learnt little from life. The capital’s homosexual scene is anything but gay - it’s populated by no-hopers lacking the consolations of high-minded Wildean saintly buggery or Ortonesque cheerful cottaging.

Little cruelties or deadenings of the human spirit pop up here and there: the girlfriend of one of Mehmet’s work colleagues is amused by Mehmet’s work stories: the same stories related by her boyfriend bore her; Adrian regards unsuccessful sex as a form of success, like an everlasting mountain-ascent: it would be boring if he reached the summit with nothing to look-up to. Motives are misunderstood, with dire results. The city itself is no tourist brochure, provides no sense of refuge. The misspelt insult, FUCKING CRIPLE, which someone has sprayed onto Meg’s motorised wheelchair, seems like a message of scorn from the capital itself to its own populace.

Francis King takes a splice from the layer-cake of contemporary London life, and shows ingredients that aren’t pleasant. Yet he displays them with clarity, and shows ingredients that aren’t pleasant. Yet he displays them with clarity, and serves up his meal with a light touch instead of preachy gloom that might so easily have been produced by a lesser hand. (A wife’s death is described with powerful spareness: ‘a little whimper, a hand stretched out as though in appeal, and then a clattering lunge across the dining-room table, so that a glass of wine went flying, its contents looking like arterial blood on the white damask.’). But the story doesn’t induce any sense of futility: we realise that King is simply showing aspects of human behaviour which we know have existed all along. The novel is necessary, enlightening and nourishing antidote to the steamy froth that has clogged-up recent literary perceptions of London.



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