The Custom House

Francis King

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21 November 2013
0 pages

The central event of Francis King’s novel, originally published in 1961, is a savage and seemingly inexplicable murder around which revolves a panorama of life in Japan that is impressive in its complexity and insight. Although The Custom House is in some ways a saddening book, with its recurrent misunderstandings between West and East and its picture of people forever straining to rise above their limitations, it is never solely tragic, flashing through its length with passages of delightful wit and humour.

In his central characters—the English teacher, Knox; the pathetic Australian missionary, Welling; Sanae, the Japanese girl with whom he falls in love; Setsuko, one of the ‘New Women’ of Japan, and her uncle, head of a vast cartel and an amateur painter—King displays the penetrating knowledge of motive and character for which he was so often praised. This is a book of a scale and seriousness which few writers would attempt, and the result is not merely a thrilling and intensely vivid picture of post-war Japan but a work of art which digs deeply into universal experience.

‘Commands not only complete attention, but great respect . . . a novel packed with such a mass of well-ordered material that if its form were less elastic it would burst open at the seams . . . a rare achievement at the best of times . . . an assured artist in command of considerable power.’ Penelope Mortimer