Austen Saunders

A run of the mill bloke

Piet Barol is young man contentedly conscious of the fact that he is ‘extremely attractive to most women and to many men’. Lucky Piet. His good looks do him no harm when he arrives in Amsterdam in 1907 to be interviewed for the position of tutor to a rich hotelier’s son. The job is his after a little flirtation with the lady of the house, and throughout the rest of the novel Piet sets to work on using his new position as a first step towards the life of luxury he feels (as most good-looking young people do) is his natural right. One of the other things he has to set to work on is his employer’s wife, who holds him to the promises of his initial sauciness. But Piet likes an older woman, so that’s alright.

Piet moves seamlessly between the social spheres above and below stairs. He makes friends with his fellow servants and is taken to heart, almost as a son, by his master. I wouldn’t, of course, wish to suggest that the ease with which Piet appears at home in both kitchen and ballroom is due to a childhood so perfectly suited to such adventures (his father was a Dutch clerk and his mother a Parisian opera singer determined to teach him the ways of the fashionable world just in case he ever found himself there) that only a novelist could have contrived it.

We readers should be grateful for Piet’s good fortune, because we travel with him on his passport to hedonism, and glimpse with him the golden world of the belle époque. Mason manages to evoke this blessed land with a happy ease by sprinkling his prose with short catalogues of the delicacies enjoyed by its inhabitants.

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