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An innocent abroad

18 January 2007

7:53 AM

18 January 2007

7:53 AM

Safe Houses David Pryce-Jones

Sinclair-Stevenson, pp.186, 12.99

Even as a boy Charles knew there was something false about his father Adrian Mainguard. Why? Nobody else did. An internationally famed pianist and composer, blessed with Dionysian looks and a forehead Virginia Woolf described as ‘like a bow window revealing his soul … there was something god-like about him’. Benjamin Britten, Auden, Sackville-Wests and Bloomsburys, all chanted praises. He was married to Edie, the daughter of the chairman of Vickers-Armstrong, and had performed for the royal family at Windsor. But still Charles sensed a flaw in the crystal. At least in his own eyes time was to prove him right. ‘Discovery of the truth about him set the compass for my life.’  

When their London home is blitzed  Charles goes to his grandparents up in the hills behind Brecon. While there he discovers his mother had married beneath her, which he finds romantic as he does when he discovers that his father was the son of a baker and his original name was Nigel Shand. These were not flaws. Charles was an innocent without snobbery, rare in those pre-war days. In these Welsh holidays he chose the company of a handyman on his grandfather’s estate, who taught  him to shoot, and the chauffeur, who introduces him to snooker, rather than the boys, mostly Etonians, who his grandparents knew. Back with his parents now moved to Kent, he meets Francis, a boy with a strange and mesmeric personality who plans to kill his mother as he believes he’s the illegitimate son of her German lover, which makes him a German too. He shows Charles the grave he’s  dug in readiness for her.

Pryce-Jones sets a cracking pace. Facts and events flash by thick and fast.  Frequent pit stops are imperative, a time to take deep breaths, remove goggles and  clean them for the laps ahead which become increasingly dark with sexual menace. Charles, perhaps in an attempt to impress Francis, steals a silver statuette but gets caught and sent to a psychiatrist who after several sessions tries to put his hand down his trousers. When he goes home to complain to his father he finds him  lying naked  in the arms of Francis. Startled, his father turns and prematurely ejaculates while glaring into his son’s face.

Horrified he runs to tell his mother, who says that it doesn’t bother her so why should it bother him? This is the moment when the scales fall from Charles’s eyes and he sees for the first time not only the flaw he’d sought in his father but also the louche ways of the world he was expected to join. He returns to his grandparents in Wales, who see to it that he gets a good education and support his ambition to join the army as a private. He is happy there, particularily when he’s sent to Germany as a translator and loses his sexual anxieties in an affair with a dashing German girl. His return home is saddened by the news that Francis, who had become a fellow of All Souls with a dazzling future, has fulfilled his mission to kill his mother and himself in a particularly shocking way.

Most novelists need a dozen pages to cram in the number of facts Pryce-Jones can do in one. Nothing must be left out, which makes for heavy going. Perhaps as a historian who has written The Fall of the Soviet Empire 1985-1991, to name but one of his non-fiction works, he feels bound to include everything, while most novelists feel that too many bald facts and bare statements leave the reader too little to stimulate his imagination. Nevertheless Pryce-Jones has written a good deal of fiction and has a very considerable and distinguished following.   

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