Books: Praying for the end of King Arthur's grumpy reign

Patricia Craig experiences the long, painful goodbye of a northern Alf Garnett and wonders when, if ever, a restricted life loses its value

DYING IS an art," wrote Sylvia Plath. Writing about dying is also an art, one which Margaret Forster possesses in no small measure. Precious Lives charts a couple of deaths, of the author's father and her sister- in-law Marion Davies. One is staved off, it seems, almost indefinitely, the other occurs more quickly, though perhaps not quickly enough, and more or less untimely. Marion Davies herself believed that 56 was a good enough age; and she insists that she is happy even in atrocious circumstances: weak, drugged, emaciated, every faculty giving up, in the last stages of cancer. Arthur Forster, born in 1900, goes on and on until he reaches 96. He accepts large constrictions, such as leaving his bungalow for a home, and finally even resorting to the use of a wheelchair, which would once have been anathema to a person of his grumpy pertinaciousness.

Margaret Forster's Hidden Lives (1995), located partly in Victorian and Edwardian Carlisle, uncovered a mystery or two among the author's immediate forebears, and then expanded its detective work into a meditation on social conditions, particularly for working-class women over the past three or four generations The subject of Precious Lives does not immediately seem so intriguing or attractive, but the author pursues her purpose with such flair that she succeeds, once again, in riveting her reader.

Forster finds herself wondering about the drive to prolong lives, at any cost; even lives that must be judged to have lost their value, their "precious" quality. It's not that she is making out a case for euthanasia: she passionately believes that even the terminally ill ought to be helped to go on as long as they are able. Their decision is crucial, and it is possible that lives about to be cut short gain a savour and significance unimaginable to others.

This is not what happened with Arthur Forster, who really did go on too long, beyond independence, comfort, the assertion of individuality, and anything else that makes life precious. Even at its height, though, the life of Margaret Forster's father seems to have been pretty bleak, by his own choosing. A man to whom the concept of friendship is totally alien, Arthur relies on his dispersed family, his son and daughters, for support, news and diversion (such as trips to his favourite resorts). If he isn't lovable, what they feel is more than an impulse of duty. It contains a kind of admiration for Arthur's invincibility and inflexibility. His awfulness, in the end, has a kind of inverted charm, like a Northern Alf Garnett's.

What unifies these dissimilar episodes of dying is the refusal of each protagonist to inflict suffering on those around them. They are both brave about dying, which counts for a great deal. Margaret Forster does not shirk the terrible details of her sister-in-law's deterioration - or, for that matter, the days of tedium lived through by her unsociable old parent in a bungalow in Carlisle.

That she keeps us on tenterhooks to learn more about Arthur's difficulties in getting on a bus, or Marion's struggles to climb a flight of stairs, testifies to her narrative skill. The odd factual error aside (the Scottish ballad "The Four Maries," for example, is not about the death of Mary Queen of Scots) Precious Lives adds up to an exemplary tribute to two striking individuals.

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