(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Anthony Powell employs a variety of narrative forms to recount the drama of the Alecto’s cruise; each fresh perspective adds to the irony of the novel. The structure is reminiscent of the English “whodunit”: A small, enclosed society—in this case isolated aboard a ship—attempts to solve a mystery in its midst. There is no murder at the core of The Fisher King, but rather a puzzle involving the vagaries of the human heart. Saul Henchman is the ultimate enigma: Famous for his photographs, controversial for his manner of living, pitied for his disabilities, he is immediately recognized as a celebrity. Nevertheless, Henchman is shrouded in mystery; a shadowy past, apocryphal tales from his war service, gossip about his relationships might illustrate the outer man, but the novel makes it painfully clear that attempts to fathom the inner man are inept, at best. Barberina Rookwood is his partner in mystery. Their fellow passengers long to know the precise nature of her relationship to Henchman. Her celebrity derives not only from her companionship to Henchman, who is said to be impotent, but also from her immense sacrifice in giving up a career in ballet that promised fame and fortune. Was this supreme renunciation her idea or Henchman’s?

As the novel unfolds, the reader slowly gains at least a partial understanding of the characters. The reader’s limited knowledge has at its base the misapprehensions and lack of perception in the narrators. Valentine Beals, the primary narrator, first observes Saul Henchman and Barberina Rookwood as they board the Alecto to begin the cruise. While Beals has never seen either in the flesh, he immediately recognizes their names on the passenger list and spots the couple—Henchman by his crutches and camera, Barberina by her effortless grace and delicate beauty. Beals, an author of swashbuckling historical romances, is always on the lookout for a story, adventure, or prototype hero, and he is immediately fascinated by the complexities of the Henchman-Rookwood partnership. Aided and abetted by his interested wife and the Bealses’ friends and traveling companions, the Middlecotes, he engages himself in a minute scrutiny of the pair’s actions. The four stockpile...

(The entire section is 909 words.)