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For love or truth

Friday February 4, 2005

For love or truth

Review by K.S. USHA DEVI

Familiar Rooms in Darkness
Author: Caro Fraser
Publisher: Penguin, 389 pages
 

FAMILIAR Rooms in Darkness follows Caro Fraser’s style of leaving the readers mulling at the end. Perhaps that is why her books are interesting. Having read another novel written by her, A Little Learning, I was impressed with her ability to delve into the human psyche so convincingly.  

Her strong points are that her main characters grow as the readers weave through the book. They stand out as real people and not just mere characters. 

In Familiar Rooms in Darkness, the protagonist is Adam Downing, a young journalist who is given the chance of a lifetime to make it big - to be a biographer to one of the most well known persons in Britain, Harry Day. Day is revered for his poetry, novels and plays. Yet, his personal life remains a mystery. 

Although the cancer-stricken Day agrees to let Downing work on his biography a few weeks before his inevitable death, he cleverly controls the shaping of the biography by slyly leaving out details of his lurid past. 

Manipulative and eager to preserve his fame, Day is inadvertently helped by the inexperienced Downing who is written off as a fresh-faced young man eager to be objective rather than shocking. 

However, Downing proves otherwise by digging up details from Harry’s past slowly through research and networking. He gets his first whiff of this through George Meacher, a photographer who moved in the same circle as Harry in the 1960s and later through another old-timer Richard Compton-King, a former rock band manager. Compton-King proves to be a worthy ally for Downing as he unravels the life of Day.  

Fraser’s portrayal of the two wives, the actresses Cecile Patterson and Briony Nugent, are remarkable. While Patterson is fragile in character, Nugent is just the opposite.  

Both women are devoted to Day and fight very hard to conceal his misdemeanours. This makes Downing even more compelled to investigate Day’s history. 

Uncovering uncomfortable details, Downing has the arduous task ahead of him to inform Day’s family of his findings. These are tightly guarded secrets, such as Day’s sexual dalliances with teenage boys in India and Britain and the fact that Day’s two children, the lawyer Charles and actress Bella, are adopted. 

A confrontation ensues between the Downing and the wives who cleverly use their final weapon, which is revealed in the narration, to stop Downing from publishing the biography.  

Downing is torn between following the principles of Tolstoy who said: “The one thing necessary in life, as in art, is to tell the truth. Truth is my hero,” and compromising because he has fallen deeply in love with someone along the way.  

So what does Downing choose at the end – love or the pursuit of truth?  

Fraser puts forth the idea of choices we make in our lives. Whether or not that choice is the best ultimately lies within the person involved. Fraser cleverly opens up complex issues dealing with human emotions that cannot be rationalised easily and leaves a lasting impression on the reader.  

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