IN BRIEF

A Hand at the Shutter by Francis King, Constable pounds 15.99 .

"Are you sure you really want it?" Anna's mother asks, foisting on her an ugly black-and-white tom-cat. Something in Anna goes out to the abandoned animal, and in no time he is playing a central part in her life. Boyfriends, social intercourse, all take second place to Prince. Her first action on returning home is to call his name; she relishes his "fatness and sleekness". But one day she calls, and he doesn't appear. Next day her work is "prolonged agony". Five weeks go by; Anna's acute desolation gradually subsides. Then, just as she is preparing to go out to a party, Prince turns up, emaciated and battered but none the less a survivor. Anna, overcome, remembers her mother's words: "Are you sure you really want it?"

Well, is she? Francis King prefers not to answer so blunt a question. This story, "Wanting", can stand as a metaphor for his complex, humane art. Just as the cat cannot tell Anna where he has been or what he has been up to, so Anna cannot say what she truly wants, whether her obsession with Prince will deprive her of the fulfilling life she should be leading or whether it will satisfy some inner craving. Francis King's understanding of the ultimately inexplicable nature of obsession has been amply revealed in his long writing career; in the throbbing, unrequited sexual infatuation of A Domestic Animal, or the maternal busy-bodydom of The Woman Who Was God. In this collection of stories we have no less haunting instances.

Francis King does not judge, nor does he explain away. Yet to say he accepts would not be quite exact, for his appreciation of the pain involved and inflicted is too intense. For all the stories' pared yet urbane style, they work on us not by clarifying situations or behaviour, but by making us realise their terrifying opacity.

We meet Dr Middleton in his luxury hotel in Seoul falling for the seduction techniques of a superannuated tart; Reynolds, bored in Japan by the English conversation classes he has to give; Gavin, a graduate who finds satisfaction as well as cash in begging in a prosperous Kensington Street. (King is very good about London and its extraordinary prolixity of social positions.) Yet, brief as some of these stories are, depths are always sounded.

Paul Binding

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