An ambitious novel from British writer North (209 Thriller Road, 1980), winner of the 1990 Somerset Maugham Award for fiction, takes the formulaic theme of disparate characters arbitrarily gathered together and turns it into a dark metaphor for our times. Set in a London boardinghouse, whose splendid Georgian exterior is merely a facade for an interior as damaged and dilapidated as its inhabitants, the novel takes place in the dying days of the year. This timing is deliberate, since the story requires both the darkness and cold—both of the heart and the season. Owned by the aging Mrs. Gorse, whom Time has left ``with a lack of gravity, the going away of all horizons,'' the house is a refuge and way station for troubled souls. There is Santay, proud and sensitive, who, confined to a wheelchair because of an accident, must depend on the kindness of others. Marek, the foreign student, lives for music and has a gift for friendship, but both his talent and friends seem to be betraying him. Gabriella, the young Italian who cleans the house in exchange for a room, is frightened of sex but nonetheless has affairs with Marek and Skim, the brooding technician who in turn yearns for Julia, Santay's friend. Over a Christmas as bleak as any of Dickens's darker imaginings, the house and its inhabitants fall apart. More than entropy has set in as wood rots, electricity fails, and characters go mad, disappear, or commit suicide. Chapel Street, like death, turns out to be just another ``black hole—Time's lair'' where the inhabitants had been all ``dead souls'' whether ``they were escaped, or trapped, or waiting.'' Like Martin Amis, to whom he has been compared, North sees Britain as already in the midst of some Anglian GîtterdÑmmerung, bereft of hope and redemption. Ultimately the unrelieved gloom is too contrived and schematic. Talented, but flawed.
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