Paperback: In the Dark, by Deborah Moggach

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The Independent Culture

Deborah Moggach's hugely enjoyable 17th novel is set in a rundown lodging house near Southwark during the final years of the First World War. Landlady Eithne Clay has been running the business since the death of her ineffectual husband, helped only by her 16-year-old son, Ralph, and Winnie, her reliable maid. The shabby rooms are home to a dozen or so lost souls including a blind communist, an incontinent old lady and a traumatised war veteran. Into this dreary world strides Neville Turk, a butcher and local black marketeer who has long profited from the fact that "many women would drop their drawers for a pound of mince". Eithne, with pretensions to being genteel, needs more than mince to oblige. She soon finds herself wooed by gifts of glistening lamb chops and crimson top side. Adolescent Ralph, repulsed by this distressingly carnal turn of events, turns vegetarian and tries to get sent to the front, while Winnie seeks solace in an affair of her own.As ever, Moggach deftly weaves politics and social history into a tightly told story of ordinary disappointments and mismatched desires. The battles that are played out in the kitchens of south London may not be quite as grisly as the ones simultaneously being waged on the Western Front, but the damage proves no less severe.