This year, 2014, will be notable for its commemorations of the Great War, but Deborah Moggach’s novel In the Dark (first published in 2008) was not written with this in mind, though it could have been. Set in 1916, it has no scenes in the trenches but is about the war from a refreshingly different viewpoint.
Young Eithne Clay runs a boarding house in London, assisted by her fourteen-year-old son, Ralph, and their ‘help’, Winnie. By page four Eithne is a war widow, and the story of how the family and its assortment of lodgers cope with life in the house is seen through the eyes of the adolescent Ralph – but not in a mawkish way. As Eithne struggles financially to keep things together for her son and the lodgers, she accepts the attentions of the local butcher, Mr Turk, who woos her with extra rations of meat and promises of a better life. The old house is transformed when Mr Turk moves in and installs electricity, gradually throwing light, literally and metaphorically, on the lives of its occupants. Ralph learns what it means to grow up through his interactions with Winnie, with blind Alwyne – invalided out of the army – with Boyce whom he regards as friend and mentor, and with the other lodgers. Each character is so brilliantly drawn that we can identify with their situation in 1916 as clearly as if it were happening now.
For some reason, Deborah Moggach’s two most popular novels, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Tulip Fever, seem to overshadow her others. Much as I enjoyed Tulip Fever, the emotional involvement I felt with In the Dark made this book far more memorable. It would make a wonderful film to add to the already long list of reminders of WWI.
Viv Apple is a member of Nottingham Writers Club