Ivo Stourton’s debut novel was, for me, a classic library impulse borrowing. Nestling in that awkward genre somewhere between crime and literature, with an appealing cover and an engaging description it fitted easily into my late May borrowing, and then, regrettably sat on the shelf while other books competed with it for my attention – so much so that it very nearly went back unread.
That didn’t happen – and I am enormously pleased about that. The slim paperback made its way into my briefcase last week for a trip to Ankara, and proved the most pleasant of surprises – an engaging, erudite, and accomplished work that had me rechecking the author’s details, astonished my the maturity of the writing.
Set in a Cambridge that must be the late 1990s (although at times it feels much earlier, bygone era) and a contemporary London (it doesn’t pay to try and over analyse the dates, as I’m pretty sure they don’t quite add up – this however does not matter in the slightest) it follows the development of a young undergraduate, James Walker, as he moves from shy undergraduate, through socialite student, to prosperous lawyer. This transformation, from likeable youth to thoroughly unpleasant 30 something is an absorbing morality tale, accurately portrayed in the first person, as Walker punctuate his narrative with observations such as
How foolish it is to believe that you cannot love someone for their fortune.
This cuts to the heart of the novel. This is a story about the corrupting influence of money and its power to ruin. The undergraduate Walker is not rich, and does not come from vast wealth, his father now living in what is hinted at being somewhat straitened circumstances. To live up to his new found friends, who delight in flouting authority, from pirating essays to the nocturnal scaling of college buildings the title refers to, he spends profligately, if unnecessarily, and when his doomed friend, Francis, is cut off from his wealth, Walker is a ready accomplice in their descent into more extreme forms of crime – even if throughout he remains by no means the most criminal or corrupted of his set.
Make no mistake however, despite Walker not being the worst of people, the London lawyer he becomes is thoroughly unappealing. An arrogant, alcoholic-in-denial (with the damning tell-tale phrase of “I never really got drunk any more” appearing), habitual user of pornography and prostitution fails utterly to stir much sympathy in us, the ‘redeeming’ quality of his acquired wealth doing nothing to make him a better person. The roots of this behaviour are signposted throughout the novel; in particular his admiration for Michael’s sexual prowess is depressing.
He was much further advanced in seduction techniques than the rest of us, who still thought that sex in some way was linked to mutual affection.
Intriguingly Walker initially does not rashly plunge into friendships at Cambridge, following the advice of his father and Evelyn Waugh to choose his friends wisely not quickly. His reaction to Michael’s arrival through his window and ensuing introduction to the rest of the night climbers, which sets him on his path to ruin, show that perhaps he was not so judicious in his choice, and that the comment of the porter, initially chasing the climbers, that much worse could stem from what appears to be just youthful antics, was indeed prescient.
This is not a long book, it was read between arriving at Ankara’s eerie deserted airport to fly home and landing at Heathrow, and ultimately this is a fulfilling book, reminiscent in some ways of Hollinghurst’s “Line of Beauty”. There is a trace of redemption at the end, with some level of closure being found, and a realisation that Walker had been misled by others, as well as misleading himself. None of this excuses much of his behaviour or lifestyle, but by the end one starts to realise that his cold night odyssey with old fellow night climber Jessica, her beauty now faded, is a journey out of his depraved existence, in the same way his night climbing in Cambridge sucked him down. To close the book, and realise that you cared about his fate, is testament to the precocious skill that Stourton has brought to his tale. Following this up will not be easy for him.