Rick Gekoski’s Darke tells the powerful story of James Darke, a man who, following the death of his wife, has decided to isolate himself from the outside world.
The narrative begins in a strange yet humorous episode where he employs someone to fill in his letterbox. He has already cancelled his phone line and is cannot be reached via email, even by his daughter Lucy. His curtains are drawn and he lives in a state of perpetual gloom. The title of the book has a double meaning, describing both the person of James Darke and his grief-stricken situation. Gradually through the role of a Bulgarian cleaner, Bronya, and her weekly visits, Darke’s wall of grief is slowly broken down, coaxing him out of his self-enforced hibernation.
Divided into three distinct parts, the novel’s structure allows the story to naturally and effectively develop. The first sets the scene with very little context to Darke’s usual state. Through the first person narrative we see that the protagonist is a grumpy former literature professor, with a love for Dickens and contempt for nearly everything else. His brashness and old-fashioned rigidness is a main source of the novel’s rich humour.
The second part is where we begin to see a much deeper and loving side of the protagonist. It is also where we learn the cause of this self-inflicted loneliness: his wife’s death following a battle with lung cancer. Framed by flashbacks, this section of the novel details the painful process of his wife’s death. In doing so, author Rick Gekoski, through the filter of his protagonist, offers some harrowing insight into long-term illness and death.
The third and final part is a period of restoration. He finally decides to take his friend’s advice and read the letters from his daughter. This begins a slow and tentative pursuit by Darke to make amends. Characterised by picturesque flashbacks to the early days of his relationship with his wife at the University of Oxford, these tender moments are carefully juxtaposed to the reconciliation of father and daughter. The book ends in a final episode where he takes his grandson to a football match. It is within this heart-warming moment that the reader realises that Darke is in the process of moving on and away from his grief.
Intertextuality plays a fundamental role within the text: not solely due to Darke’s literary profession, but because it adds greater depth to the widow’s continued discourse with grief and death. Darke scornfully compares his experience of death to what is said by numerous war poets. What is more, a unique and personal thesaurus of Gekoski’s protagonist – which offers to the reader Darke’s own take on words including excruciating, wretched and fatuous – accompanies the narrative.
Aside from the novel’s dissection of grief, there are some surprises still in store for the reader. Gekoski’s exploration of euthanasia, which is still a taboo subject in today’s society, transforms the novel. In the final pages, the moral grey area that is assisted death somehow casts a more positive light on James Darke. The man we’ve seen estrange himself from society and his loved ones proves himself to be a man who greatly loved and cared for his wife, and a man with an impossible decision to make.
The novel’s close is a perfect end to a fascinating story, which you will find yourself contemplating in your own darkest and loneliest moments.
Darke by Rick Gekoski (Canongate, 2017)
Photo courtesy of Canongate