The Nick of Time by Francis King

A veteran novelist's unflinching eye on our mean-spirited modern England
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The ageing Bernard Shaw was told, after being examined, that he had "normal eyesight". The verdict disappointed him until it was explained that "normal eyesight" - the ability to see clearly both at short and long distance - is extremely rare.

This diagnosis could well apply to Francis King who, born in l923, has now produced his 28th novel. All King's fictions are classical constructions, concentrating on the interactions of characters while never departing from the organisation demanded by the theme: in The Nick of Time, the moral ambivalences of altruism and succour for the needy.

King's literary models must surely be Flaubert and de Maupassant. Two long-standing friends, LP Hartley and Ivy Compton-Burnett, with their fusions of purity of subject and style, also come to mind. But King's differences from these mentors are significant. There's no question of him imposing autobiographical obsessions, or distorting events in the light of opinions.

This is one reason why, among his many books, only his autobiography Yesterday Came Suddenly (l993) is a failure: here is an author singularly uninterested in himself. His prose is limpid, fluid yet controlled, his dialogue concerned to reproduce the vocabulary and speech rhythms of his people while reflecting their social milieus. As with Shaw's eyes, this unswerving objectivity and comprehensive moral code is so rare, one is hard put to find peers.

The Nick of Time centres on Mehmet, an Albanian, adrift in contemporary London. His dilemma arouses complex emotions, starting with a desire to help, in most of those he meets - in particular, two women and a man. Meg, once a champion ballroom dancer, is a victim of MS; Mehmet can be her lodger and, instead of paying rent, can make her wheelchair-bound life more comfortable.

In the case of Marilyn, a doctor, the role of physical helper is, to begin with, reversed. Mehmet comes to her for help with a wound received during a fight. She sews it up and monitors it, only to find that he has entered her exhausted psychic life: they become lovers. Adrian is a selfish but financially successful middle-aged queen, who also wants Mehmet for sex (and perhaps love), but is unsure how much he's prepared to use money and help with the immigration authorities as payment.

Mehmet and this trio move through an England in which selfishness is a way of life - exemplified in ever-less-generous asylum laws and the mean-spirited popular demand for them.

In this novel, we are in the depressing world of The Weakest Link and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. How to expect a healthy relationship between the individual and the whole to thrive? And the difficulties are compounded by the character of Mehmet himself. He is victim, yes, but also a predator...

Those who want to read more Francis King should find his 1954 novel of innocence and experience set on Corfu, The Dark Glasses. To that excellent book I would add The Widow (l957), A Domestic Animal, (l970), Punishments (l989) and Dead Letters (1997). Readers will find that The Nick of Time is, for narrative tension, width of social franchise and depth of portraiture, fully the equal of any of them.