King, Francis (Vol. 145)
Francis King 1923-
(Full name Francis Henry King; has also written under the pseudonym Frank Cauldwell) Swiss-born English novelist, nonfiction and short story writer, and poet.
The following entry provides an overview of King's career from 1985 through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8 and 53.
King is an award-winning author of over forty works that include novels, novellas, short story collections, nonfiction, and poetry. Known primarily for his fiction, King focuses more on people than events and his writing frequently includes sharp portrayals of characters finding themselves in different areas of the world. Sometimes referred to as a “dark” writer, King employs satire, humor, and perversity to explore his characters' eccentricities as well as the pain and fragility that lie beneath them.
King was born in Adelboden, Switzerland in 1923. He spent his childhood in India until age eight, when he was sent to an English boarding school. As a young man, King became a pacifist, avoiding World War II, and chose instead to work the land and study at Balliol College in Oxford. While he was at Oxford, King published three novels and various poems. In 1951, he joined the British Council, serving in Italy, Greece, Finland, Egypt, and Japan. King returned to England years later and worked as a reviewer and drama critic. He went on to hold professional positions as president and vice president of the English branch of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN), and president of International PEN. He also cofounded the Writers' Action Group. The people and places encountered during his travels had a lasting impact on King, and his writings continually draw on his experiences as an expatriate and foreigner.
King's works include fictionalized accounts of his childhood, his life during the war years, his mother's life, his experiences in postwar Florence, his travels while employed at the British Council, and his life in Brighton after “retiring” from the council. Family relationships and sexual identity are two of the most prominent and consistent themes in his work. Several of King's early novels so openly addressed homosexuality that many critics during the 1950s refused to mention them. In fact, the homosexual subject matter in The Firewalkers (1955, reissued in 1985) forced King to find a new publisher. In this novel set in Athens, the narrator interacts with the elderly and eccentric Colonel Grecos. King uses a similar story structure in Punishments (1989), Secret Lives (1991), The One and Only (1994), Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve (1996), and Dead Letters (1997). In each work, a chance meeting between two men (often from different countries) is a catalyst for major and lasting changes in their lives. Punishments deals with the hardships encountered by Michael Gregg, who becomes enamored of German man during a student trip to Germany in 1948. In the highly praised Secret Lives, the plot centers around Sir Brian Cobean and his relationship with a Japanese boy, Osamu, who is fleeing an arranged marriage. When Sir Brian dies of AIDS, Osamu must explain to the world why he and he alone will receive Brian's estate. The One and Only examines themes of jealousy and obsession, feelings which arise when the protagonist Mervyn meets Robert, a man who is in love with Mervyn's mother. When Robert is shunned in favor of another man, he manipulates Mervyn's feeling toward his mother, who neglected him as a child. Robert and Mervyn's shared rage leads to their own sexual relationship and Mervyn eventually kills his mother. Years later, Robert writes a manuscript that details the crime extensively and Mervyn is desperate to keep it from being published. In Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, sixty-nine-year-old Elliot Baker becomes infatuated with a wealthy, young police officer in Havana. As the two men travel through Cuba together, Baker's obsession with the officer makes him reflect on the theme of religious and sexual suppression. An Australian named Steve and an Italian aristocrat are at the center of King's Dead Letters. They meet by chance in Sicily, form a relationship, and the aristocrat becomes increasingly dependent on Steve. Abuse in Steve's past prevents him from being able to love; however, the Italian is still able to draw inspiration from him. One of King's most successful and critically praised novellas, Frozen Music (1987), is a fictional account of King's life in India. The narrator, Rupert, looks back on a trip taken with his father to India. During the trip Rupert is forced to come to terms with his mother's death and to accept the reality of a vastly changed country. The Woman Who Was God (1988) follows the path of Mrs. St. Just as she travels to Africa to investigate the disappearance of her son, presumably at the hands of a religious sect. As she searches for the truth, Mrs. St. Just becomes obsessed with reconciling her unwieldy preconceptions with what she observes firsthand. In Visiting Cards (1990) and The Ant Colony (1991), King makes clever use of location and satire. Visiting Cards is a campy, almost over-the-top narrative about Amos Kingsley, a little-known travel writer who has accidentally become president of the fictional World Association of Authors. At the Association's latest conference in Malindi, meetings are unproductive, writers are taken prisoner, wives become unfaithful, and a dwarf naval officer begs to display his exhibitionist tendencies. The Ant Colony, set in Florence, satirically explores the relationship between the worldly Iris and the frumpy Jack, while also commenting on the lives of British Institute instructors. King's autobiography, Yesterday Came Suddenly (1993) makes extensive use of reconstructed dialogues with several people, giving the book an anecdotal flavor that renders it readable and entertaining.
Although his novels are well regarded, King is primarily known for his mastery of the short fiction and novella forms. David Profumo writes that the “pressures of the shorter genre … make so incisive his descriptions of psychology and place.” Some critics find King's prose loose and overwritten. Others describe his writing style as detached, commenting that he sometimes fails to elicit reader sympathy. King admits to a pessimistic world-view, but disagrees in part with critics who call his work dark. Commenting on the darker themes in his work, King has stated that “it is a darkness illuminated (I hope) by acts of decency, generosity and valor.” King has also been faulted for implausible plotlines and for including too many characters in his work. Many of his detractors concede, however, that the King canon is rich with keen observation and deep insights into his characters' emotional lives. His blunt, straightforward prose is regarded as one of his main strengths, and critics judge his ability to portray the intricacies of human behavior as one of his most effective tools. Critic Martin Seymour-Smith asserts that King is “one of the best writers of fiction [that] England possesses.”
*The Firewalkers: A Memoir [as Frank Cauldwell] (novel) 1955
Act of Darkness (novel) 1982
My Sister and Myself: The Diaries of J. R. Ackerley [editor] (nonfiction) 1982
Frozen Music (novella) 1987
The Woman Who Was God (novel) 1988
Punishments (novel) 1989
Visiting Cards (novel) 1990
**Florence: A Literary Companion (nonfiction) 1991
The Ant Colony (novel) 1991
Secret Lives: Three Novellas [contributions by Francis King, Tom Wakefield, and Patrick Gale] (novella) 1991
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SOURCE: A review of The Firewalkers, in New Statesman & Society, April 12, 1985, p. 26.
[In the following review of The Firewalkers, Everson comments favorably on the novel's writing and on the character Cedric. He warns readers that although the novel was reissued in the Gay Modern Classics series, it does not treat homosexuality as a subject.]
The Firewalkers was first published in 1956 under the pseudonym ‘Frank Cauldwell’ after the British Council had given Francis King the choice of publishing it under his own name or remaining in their employ. This autobiographical novel describes the young narrator's encounters with Greece and with...
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SOURCE: “Mischief That Is Past,” in Spectator, August 29, 1987, pp. 28–9.
[In the following review of Frozen Music, Profumo asserts that although King's prose is looser here than in his short stories, the narrated novella succeeds in its exploration of a father and son coming to terms with the past.]
‘I promised my mother I should never use that wretched word “novella”', wrote Dorothy Parker, and for many readers the term does seem to be a taxonomical cop-out for something that is ‘entre chien et loup’. When Hutchinson launched its novella series, in which Frozen Music is the latest offering, it was good to see a new platform available for...
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SOURCE: “A Death in India,” in Washington Post Book World, March 27, 1988, p. 10.
[In the following review, Seymour-Smith praises the structure and depth of Frozen Music.]
There is some confusion about the nature of fictions that are too short to call novels but too long to call short stories. There are novellas, Novelle, novelettes—and even ŕecits, André Gide's invention. The novella, which we are used to from Boccaccio, was simply a short prose narrative. The Novelle, more self-consciously developed by Goethe at a time when the short story as known to us had hardly been conceived as a form, and then by other Germans...
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SOURCE: “The Sport of a Mad Mother,” in Spectator, April 23, 1988, pp. 31–2.
[In the following review of The Woman Who Was God, Glazebrook asserts that King includes too much detail and too many fleeting characters in his novel. However, Glazebrook does praise King's well-constructed narrative.]
There is a relief in putting yourself into the hands of so accomplished a constructor of fiction as Francis King, which encourages you to suspend disbelief, suspend too to some extent the critical organs, and allow credulity a long rein. You accept that the novelist in the pages of his book may claim to be God, creating a real world. So, if at the finish you find...
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SOURCE: “The Haunter and the Haunted,” in Washington Post Book World, November 27, 1988, pp. 6–7.
[In the following review of The Woman Who Was God, Lesser criticizes what she perceives as King's lack of empathy for his characters, especially Ruth St. Just, and maintains that the too-clever plot does not allow readers to know or identify with Ruth.]
There's something disconcertingly wrong with Francis King's latest novel, but throughout most of The Woman Who Was God it's hard to put your finger on exactly what the problem is. Every time you think you've found a flaw, the novel justifies it by placing it in the context of the main character's...
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SOURCE: “A Dark and Troubling Business,” in Spectator, June 3, 1989, pp. 34–5.
[In the following review of Punishments, Lezard claims that the novel's principal drawback is its simplistic plot, but that this simplicity is made up for by the depth of the Michael Gregg character and by King's refusal to provide the reader with clear answers.]
These days, we look at prolific authors as at mothers of unviably large families (when will they get fed up? We are); except, really, for Francis King. He is a very professional writer, one of the last who does not rely on producing rubbish to sustain his output. This is his 21st novel. His subject-matter takes...
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SOURCE: A review of Punishments, in Contemporary Review, July, 1989, p. 45.
[In the following review of Punishments, Abel briefly describes what she feels are the two “punishments” found in the novel.]
Punishments by Francis King is a subtle, thoughtfully planned novel in which a strong under-stated theme underlies the plot. A young medical student, Michael, recounts his experiences during a journey to Germany almost immediately after the second world war, in the company of a number of other English university students. They are to stay in the homes of German undergraduates. Theirs is a voyage of reconciliation and Michael later calls it a...
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SOURCE: “Botni for All,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 15, 1990, p. 653.
[In the following review of Visiting Cards, Fitton praises the novel, despite his questions about its unlikely premise.]
Visiting Cards, a jocose novel about the conference procedures of a World Association of Authors (WAA), by a former world president of PEN, contains much salutary sending-up of the scheming (and screwing) that seems to accompany worthy international gatherings. The donnée may appear all too familiar; the writers’ conference novel, or memoir, may even be a symptom of writer's block. In the practised hands of Francis King, however, some...
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SOURCE: “The PEN Is Mightier Than the Word,” in Spectator, June 16, 1990, p. 54.
[In the following review of Visiting Cards, Illis notes that there is a serious side to King's comic novel.]
Francis King, former President of PEN International, has written a novel about the President of WAA, the World Association of Authors. Given that this fictional President is called Amos Kingsley, and that two early and fleeting characters are called Gabriel Lopez Martinez and Fukushima Kazuo, the novel at first looks like an extended literary in-joke. This is deceptive. The world in which WAA exists is not a satirical construct in which members of PEN, and others, are...
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SOURCE: “Internal Combustion,” in New Statesman & Society, June 7, 1991, p. 44.
[In the following review of The Ant Colony, Binding finds honesty and objectivity in King's satirical novel about the British Institute in Florence at the end of World War II.]
To Florence, not long after the end of the second world war, two young people come to teach English at the British Institute: Iris Crediton, who arrives with a whole string of connections (her mother was a famous pianist, well-known in Florentine expatriate circles), and Jack Prentice (his very surname significant), from a workingclass northern family with no social pull anywhere.
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SOURCE: “Name-Droppers,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 7, 1991, p. 22.
[In the following review of The Ant Colony, Sage examines King's treatment of his characters, especially Jack and Iris.]
Export the English if you want to have a good look at them, their absurdities and anxieties thrown into high relief against a foreign backdrop. It is the formula of Forster's A Room With a View and Woolf's The Voyage Out (in her exasperated début she transported them as far as South America), and countless novels before and since. Francis King's The Ant Colony is back on Forster territory, in Florence, just after the end of the war, where...
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SOURCE: “Expatriates Gossiping in Florence,” in Spectator, June 8, 1991, p. 36.
[In the following review of The Ant Colony, Illis writes that despite the many likeable characters in the novel, the story is not compelling.]
The English novel is regularly accused of being too quiet, too polite and too safe. It is often described in negative terms: it is unadventurous or unambitious. Francis King has written novels, such as Act of Darkness, to which none of these adjectives apply. They are all, however, appropriate in the case of The Ant Colony.
Jack, a young, diffident, working-class virgin, and Iris the ‘classy’ titled...
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SOURCE: “Only the Lonely,” in Times Literary Supplement, August 2, 1991, p. 19.
[In the following review of Secret Lives: Three Novellas, Davenport-Hines judges King's novella, a tale of emotional isolation, as the strongest in the collection, which also includes novellas by Tom Wakefield and Patrick Gale.]
By far the most arresting of the three novellas in this collection is that by Francis King [Secret Lives] which gives the volume its title. This tells the story of a poor Japanese painter named Osamu who comes to London to escape a forced marriage, and becomes the houseboy and lover of a QC, Sir Brian Cobean. The latter is an elegant, persuasive,...
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SOURCE: “Coexistences,” in New Statesman & Society, August 23, 1991, p. 19.
[In the following review of Secret Lives: Three Novellas, Binding praises King's title novella for its portrayal of characters carrying burdensome secrets and of a man dying of AIDS.]
In conversation with Professor Barbara Hardy for the European Gay Review, Francis King observed that the novella “is not an English genre. It was developed in France and Russia as a concentrated form for narratives of sexual passion.” He cites Prevost's Manon Lascaut and Turgenev's First Love. Now he has followed his own masterly contribution to this un-English genre...
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SOURCE: “Places and Friends He Still Can Recall,” in Spectator, September 4, 1993, p. 26.
[In the following review of Yesterday Came Suddenly, Lively commends King's memoir, which she feels is an engaging and moving work, in large part because of King's use of anecdotes and lengthy dialogue segments.]
Autobiography comes in many guises—as stern narrative, as expiation, as justification, as smokescreen. Francis King is an accomplished raconteur and it is in this style that he has chosen to write his—a sequence of anecdotes by means of which the great array of people with whom he has been associated trip in and out of the pages. The result is...
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SOURCE: “Words Break the Pain Barrier,” in London Observer, September 5, 1993, p. 53.
[In the following review of Yesterday Came Suddenly, Fitzgerald summarizes King's autobiography, commenting on its story-like quality and on King's modesty in relation to his achievements.]
Francis King, the brilliant and distinguished novelist, poet, critic, travel-writer and biographer, turns out also to have been a successful Brighton landlady (his own definition), short-order cook and agricultural labourer. These experiences have led to ‘an attitude of profound, if resigned, pessimism about the world. I do not expect people to behave consistently well, and my...
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SOURCE: “Wasp at Large,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 8, 1993, p. 30.
[In the following review of Yesterday Came Suddenly, Keates praises King's “busy, populous chronicle of a literary life.”]
The boy Francis King tasted “a brine-like salt” on his father's forehead when, reluctantly, or at any rate unspontaneously, he kissed him goodnight. The taste, his autobiography's Proustian memory spur, turned out to be a malign portent of disease and death, and it is the presence of these two elements, spectral or all too palpable, which lends a melancholy consistency to [Yesterday Came Suddenly, a] busy populous chronicle of a literary life....
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SOURCE: “Memories Are Made of This,” in London Review of Books, December 16, 1993, pp. 22–3.
[In reviewing King's Yesterday Came Suddenly alongside Giles Gordon's Aren't We Due a Royalty Statement? and William Trevor's Excursions in the Real World, Beer concludes that King's “detached” prose style serves Yesterday Came Suddenly well.]
I was well into Giles Gordon's Aren't We Due a Royalty Statement? before I noticed that other readers were taking the book seriously, often to the point of denunciation. Up to then I had been assuming that it had set out to be an ingenious spoof, a sort of hoax or parody which had failed to...
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SOURCE: “Criminal Connections,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 23, 1994, p. 22.
[In the following review of The One and Only, Woods criticizes what he views as overwritten passages, but states that the story is “well told” and unique.]
The past comes back to haunt you. It does in fiction, at least. One does not need a large-scale obsessive, like Proust, to demonstrate how heavily the structure of the novel itself has come to rely on this banal idea. Come-uppance is the key.
The narrator and protagonist of Francis King's [One and Only], Mervyn Frost, is sent the typescript of an old school friend's autobiography and...
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SOURCE: A review of Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, in Times Literary Supplement, March 29, 1996, p. 22.
[In the following review of Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, Godfrey-Faussett objects to the novel's “confessional style” and to its forced imagery.]
With [Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve] Francis King juggles the epithets in the aphorism attributed to William Lecky that “sensuality is the vice of young men and old nations.” The “ash” of the title doesn't only get on the narrator's sleeve but also up his nose, as a brief encounter with cocaine launches his Cuban holiday in a way he never expected. He writes: “my head, so far from resembling some...
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SOURCE: “Love in a Hot Climate,” in Spectator, March 30, 1996, p. 29.
[In the following review of Ash on an Old Man's Sleeve, Scammell praises the novel's treatment of sexuality.]
[In Francis King’s novel, Ash on an Old Man’s Sleeve,] Elliott Baker arrives in the ‘hot, dark, mysterious’ city of Havana, a valetudinarian of fixed habits and declining powers, more accustomed to watching his step for cracked paving-stones than sniffing ‘that strange fermentation of the air’ which greets his traveller's enquiring nose. ‘You want a good time?’ he is asked on his first morning by a couple of prostitutes. ‘Of course I wanted a good time. Who...
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SOURCE: “People of a Certain Age,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 6, 1996, p. 22.
[In the following review of A Hand at the Shutter, Smith comments on King's “sly” storytelling and on the brave female characters found in this collection of stories.]
A Hand at the Shutter brings together sixteen of Francis King's stories, half of them already published in journals and anthologies, written over a period of thirteen years. Elegant, well-bred stories, ranging in location from Maida Vale to Slovenia, Buenos Aires to Japan, they form a varied, subtly challenging collection which confirms the author's creative longevity. King focuses on...
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SOURCE: “Sicilian Overtures,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 24, 1997, p. 25.
[In the following review of Dead Letters, Haigh takes issue with the main plot, which concerns Prince Stefano and Steve's relationship.]
There is a tradition of novels whose power resides in allusiveness and suggestion rather than story-telling. It is as part of this tradition that Francis King intends Dead Letters. His aim is to indicate, rather than to tell, to leave things in the shadows or off-stage, rather than to expose them to the glare of sunlight; or, like a De Chirico painting, to give them the mythic resonance of a train in the distance.
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McDadd, Susanne. “Francis King: An Interview.” Pen (Autumn 1989): 24-25.
McDadd interviews King, focusing on his life and various works.
Mellors, John. “Waves and Echoes: The Novels and Stories of Francis King.” London Magazine 15, (December 1975–January 1976): 74–82.
Mellors offers a critical assessment of King's work, concluding that The Custom House, The Waves Behind the Boat, and The Japanese Umbrella are his “most impressive achievements.”
Williamson, Malcolm. “Lechers on world peace.” Observer (London), No. 10365 (10 June 1990): 54....
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King, Francis (Vol. 8)
King, Francis 1923–
King is a British novelist, short story writer, poet, and editor. He has been writing subtle, atmospheric novels about the human condition for some years now, yet his name is hardly known outside of England. Perhaps the combination of a rather grim pessimism and a subdued, conservative writing style have mitigated his appeal. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Travellers' tales, of a modest kind, the two stories which make up Flights are evidently intended to relate to one another. The first, set in Hungary, is called "The Infection". The second, set in Greece, is called "The Cure". Both evoke a mood of insecurity, of unease with foreign ways, of helpless dependence upon airline staff, chauffeurs, interpreters and the supposed good will of unpredictable strangers. Passengers' tales, perhaps, rather than travellers'….
Plausibility and technical skill are what it is natural to admire in these stories. The author has set himself difficult tasks and succeeded: a mass of information about imagined people, real places and customs, is offered with a neat and graceful economy. But the stories can fairly be called modest, whetting curiosity rather than satisfying it. One feels that Mr King is wary of conjecture, that he describes nothing he is not pretty sure of. There is a real pleasure in following the work of a writer so firmly in command of his material.
"Tales of Travel," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 19, 1973, p. 1269.
Francis King is the sort of writer who deliberately underplays his material, letting each small incident and revelation make its own, often devastating point; and he is a master of the style appropriate to this narrative restraint. The balance and complexity of his writing, which seems simple, are constantly fresh and bracing. Of course it is never simple at all, nor is his subject matter. In the tight world of A Game of Patience, set in the Surrey countryside during the last months of the war, bombs fall, an old man dies and an old woman loses her reason, a tense CO commits two acts of terrible cruelty, a party of servicemen discordantly interrupts village life. A persistent sexual undercurrent flickers throughout. An entire network of relationships is explored and clarified with no authorial pushing or nudging, each response authentic and beautifully placed.
The exact sense of pace and touch means that King never has to violate his matter by sensationalising it. His selection of a 17-year old girl as principal foreground figure—all of the action is subtly filtered through her mind—distances the events of the book from the reader, who must fill in the chinks in her perceptions. This novel makes no easy choices and, in its cold, rather comfortless way, demands much more of the reader than its very English elegance seems to suggest. (p. 355)
Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), September 13, 1974.
[The Needle] goes for an info-packed intro, lobbing in a wordy image before you even know what it will refer to:
Like strangers thrown together fortuitously at the same table in an overcrowded café and determined not to be invaded by each other's indentities [sic], brother and sister breakfasted in the dark, high-ceilinged, old-fashioned kitchen above the surgery.
Even without the tiresome misprint, there's a lot to be getting on with here: time of day, location, mood, 'intriguing' personnel, and the additional worry of wondering quite why this evidently bleak and Sundayish tableau suggested an overcrowded café to Mr King's mind.
It's such an honest opening, however, that you might say the whole book is in it. Certainly the brother/sister tension stated here is the life of the narrative. Almost at once, we know that the brother, Bob, dunnit. What we want his GP sister Lorna to find out is what he dun…. [A] vaguely disgusting, semi-incestuous state of affairs sets up a whole series of sympathetic minor revulsions in the middle of the book, when Mr King dwells queasily on dog hairs, fleas, household muck, bowel trouble, a senile neighbour known as 'the grub', and Lorna's crippled partner Matty, who slurps tea and makes execrable slimy mousse.
All this suburban nausea is, of course, part of the build-up for Bob, who has to come through with something pretty sick in the way of a guilty secret to justify it. Mere queerness won't do. But guilt does finally explode into revelation (in a series of lugubrious pops); and Mr King shows a short-story writer's cunning…. The mood of the piece … swings almost right over to Bette Davis Gothic in the last pages…. [What] depresses me slightly, in the end, about books of this kind is that they drop back so snugly into the world they depict. The Needle is just the kind of book lonely women like Lorna will be reading this winter. (p. 285)
Russell Davies, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), September 5, 1975.
There has always been a dark side to Mr King's novels, somewhat contradicting the conventional view of him as one of our more placid writers; although he is no Poe, and would not want to be, he is adept at casting various forms of terror and unease within his apparently calm, collected prose. (p. 316)
[His novel, The Needle,] is no mere pot-boiler, since Mr King never dabbles in over-statement. He is also too fastidious to bother with the thoroughly modern under-statement; he is, rather, a master of the precise statement—going very well with his constant effort to keep up appearances: the appearance of his characters, of his prose, and of the neatly but tightly formed shape of his narrative. But beneath this surface, some dark fantasies swoop and glitter. The novel is invaded by images of decay. Sexual violence—aptly suggested by the title of the book—and physical decrepitude … are somehow connected in Mr King's mind, and his darting imagination is only barely kept in check by the iron discipline he imposes upon his own writing. But order and control, however self-willed, have their disadvantages.
I wish that Mr King would take a leap into the dark—the real dark: not the dark of fantasy and imagination, but the dark of language—and although he would run the risk of massive failure …, he might also in the process add to his considerable powers of observation and description. The plot of The Needle, for example, is carefully and cleverly developed but it is just a little too neat…. It is all very intriguing, very well told, very plausible, and I admire the way in which he manipulates his narrative; but, it may be that Mr King is putting his points too well, and manipulating too cleverly. The darkness within should become visible on the surface, too. (pp. 316-17)
Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 6, 1975.
No one could accuse Francis King of flaunting his consciousness or even of imposing a slanted attitude towards the Human Condition on his readers. His best novels—of which The Needle is certainly one—are like chamber pieces for their delicacy of tone and clarity of line, but also for their apparent lack of a conductor. The Needle has a third-person narrator, not a participant in the action, who unobtrusively sets scenes and times, moves characters from bed to bath, offers a little personal history where necessary, describes a gesture here, a facial expression there, reads the mind of a character when there is no occasion for dialogue. He combines the functions of reciter and attendant in a Japanese Noh play, moving the story along between incidents and stepping forward from time to time to rearrange the actors' costumes.
If King's London seems grey and seedy (though never apocalyptically so, as in Our Father), it is because the characters happen to live in grey and seedy circumstances rather than because King has got it in for London or contemporary society. When his heroine, a G.P. with a practice in Parson's Green, says: "That's life—a perpetual state of vague worry, or at least, that's what it is for me", the sentiment stops with her, not spilling over into the relation between writer and reader. Her partner's warning: "There'll always be mess and inefficiency in this country. More and more of it. So you'd better reconcile yourself" is belied as a counsel of despair by the speaker's own sturdy efficiency in the surgery. Belied, but not entirely cancelled, since she is physically crippled and her home is squalid. King is adept at introducing little knots of complexity like this into the clear line of his narrative. They neither impede nor advance it, but belong somehow to a separate level of the book, the observation of character.
Our unobtrusive attendant is more of a tyrant than at first appears. Though he never uses settings to convey attitudes, one begins to suspect that he loves his settings more than his characters. He certainly loves his plot best of all. The Needle sounds nasty and it is. What seems, to begin with, ordinary and sad turns twisted and sharp. The early impression of independence in the main characters is an illusion caused by not knowing them well enough and they cannot be properly understood until the plot has tightened round them. For this reason the novel's after-taste is stronger than its taste in the mouth. What one goes away with is no substitute for biography but a real sense of place and a frisson from the virtuosity of the plot. (pp. 78-9)
John Spurling, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), December, 1975.
There are alarming signs in Hard Feelings that Francis King admires his own undeniable deftness and economy rather more than is good for his writing. At the end of several stories, there is a suspicion of a faint sigh of self-satisfaction—'is there no end to the man's resourcefulness?'—which is unutterably irritating and, in fact, not always excused by the work's merit. Some of the plot devices creak with old age and over-use; sometimes the reader gets restless waiting for the smashing—and predictable—blow of dramatic irony. Mr King is capable of combining extreme flashiness with an air of sober craftsmanship in a fashion reminiscent of Annigoni.
None of which denies that there is much to admire in Hard Feelings. Mr King has an appallingly accurate ear, eye and nose for hypocrisy, and teeth to match. He also has a somehow unexpected capacity for tenderness towards his characters, when he can break clear of his deep rooted contempt for their failure to see their situation as clearly as he does himself. In stories like 'A Nice Way to Go' or 'The Brothers', he tempers justice with mercy, so to speak, remembering that an author is a member of the human race, too, despite his temporary advantage of omnipotence. (p. 22)
Nick Totton, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), October 2, 1976.