With its enticing blend of s*x, death, Establishment politics and academic philosophy (in this case the theory of happiness), the setup for this intriguing novel sounds like something by Ian McEwan. But Frayn brings to it his trademark sense of humour, so it never quite gets into the same territory.
The comic aspects of an unlikely love affair between a devious public servant and the Oxford academic who is also his boss are fully exploited, providing a nice counterpoint to the more intellectually engaging philosophical material.
In that sense, this novel makes a nice companion piece to Frayn’s two most recent efforts – “Headlong” and “Spies” – both of which similarly deploy comic plots as devices for discussing more serious concerns. In the right hands, this kind of thing can work.
Frayn consistently manages to pull it off because he makes clever narrative choices. Here, he uses the first-person narration of an investigator, the transcripts of meetings, and audio tapes of the lovers to tell a story which unfolds in two timeframes.
He also sets up an intriguing mystery – Who killed Stephen Summerchild? – To pull you through. Highly original and engaging, this should appeal to readers who prefer literary fiction but also enjoy the intrigue and pacing of crime/mystery novels. Its a challenging fusion of the two.
The book is an irritating dichotomy. A tightly woven,well-structured plot compliments an economical stock of carefully crafted and intriguing if ultimately plebian characters. At the same time, the book preaches, is tedious and is not terribly interesting. Frayn’s stream of consciousness works well, though it falls somewhat short of Faulkner.
However, interesting questions remained unanswered, such as the teasing fascination of Jessel’s family relationships and his resolution of an old love affair. It is not in the least bit funny. END
This book is strange, finely crafted, sometimes very funny, deliberation about autocracy, philosophy, love and insanity.
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