British novelist Francis King is also drama critic of the London Sunday Telegraph, and so must spend a certain amount of his time in the dark. In the dark, alas, is where his readers will be left by his latest novel, "Voices in an Empty Room."
King's last novel, "Act of Darkness," was a rather muddled retelling of the Constance Kent case, a grisly Victorian murder well known in Great Britain, clumsily transposed to India in the last days of the Raj. Now, in "Voices in an Empty Room," King has tried to explore a theme often attempted by other writers and seldom dealt with successfully: the possibility of life after death, and the further possibility of communication between the living and those who have recently died.
King presents us with a handful of characters, only tangentially related to each other, all of whom suffer a death in the family. Hugo Crawford, a professor of literature who has been pursuing studies in the paranormal, commits suicide (it appears) after learning that two boys he thought gifted with ESP were actually tricking him. Lavinia Trent, an actress, single-handedly raises her son Stephen, a silent and moody boy, doing the best she can for him while theater and film assignments take her away, and then must face the boy's suicide. Another (unseen) character has died in the Falkland Islands, and others have died too.
Hugo Crawford's sister Sybil is the central link among those who die and those who come together in the end. A headmistress, she is neither an attractive character nor easy to know, possibly because there is nothing in her that is interesting to learn. She is the kind of woman who chatters impatiently but fervently to unlettered listeners about the 10th-century Quem Quaeritis trope. She also practices and chatters often about automatic writing, drawing questionable conclusions from her "scripts." We also witness a se'ance and hear much talk of ESP, communication through mediums and Hugo's earlier promise to get in touch with her from the other side.
King does his best to give it all an elevated and literary tone by writing some sections in the present tense and even a final chapter in the future tense, but none of it is convincing. To be fair, I might note that this sort of material has been the downfall of better writers than King and of writers more experienced with similar subjects. It might also be kind to suggest that King is not really dealing here with life after death, and to say instead that his theme is an exploration of the ways in which those who have left us continue to shape our lives. It would be kind, but it would not be true. The entire thrust of "Voices in an Empty Room" is otherwise. King clearly means to write about the possibility of communication with the dead. Just as clearly, he doesn't know what he wants to say about it.
King seems guilty of a false assumption that can afflict the novelist, the assumption that, because a subject interests him, it is therefore intrinsically interesting. But the novelist's job is to interest us, to compel our attention. King manages nothing of the sort. It seems never to occur to him that we might be skeptical, or yawning, or both.