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In The Muted Swan (1982) and two earlier novels, Arnold's nameless narrator recalled--evocatively but oh-so-moistly--his growing-up years at a non-posh English school, his problems with estranged siblings and a wild, roving widower-father. Now, in this final installment of the series, the narrator moves through his 20s and 30s, with the focus squarely on father George--and the prose again a damp morass of introspection. For the first few chapters it's the 1960s: the narrator is an auction/gallery journalist, living uneasily with artist Sarah; George, at 63, has gotten a caretaker job at a boys' school, yet another mistress (lovely school-secretary Isobel, 35, mother of two); the narrator goes down for a visit (""In some vague, apologetic way, I wanted him to help me with my life""); but though George seems happy at last, able to put aside the past, the idyll collapses when Isobel gets pregnant (an eventual miscarriage) and they both lose their jobs. Then, jumping ahead, it's the 1970s: George is now married to much-widowed nurse Gladys, becoming increasingly ill and alcoholic; the narrator, now separated from Sarah (who bore his child), takes assorted journeys into his past, discovering a new, true love. And, after one last father/son boozing binge, George begins a long, slow, bitter death scene--but the narrator finds that all of his father's miseries and angers are less important than ""the shield of his love. It would go on protecting me until my death. Like a deposit of gold that cannot be touched, unchanging and incorruptible, it would be set against the debt of other weakness. . . ."" As before, Arnold overwhelms the modest material here with pretentious strivings: labored motifs (George as ""swan"" or ""tiger""); verbose musings on aging, love, death, sin, redemption, the prison of the past. The narrator remains a bland yet unlikable presence. And, with far less storytelling substance than The Muted Swan, this is an occasionally touching but largely ineffectual and attenuated coda: for series devotees only.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1983
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton--dist. by David & Charles