I begin this review with an admission: I know Justin Cartwright and like him immensely. Thus the reader might charge me with being unobjective and also I can see biographical elements to his novel that the more detached reader does not. It’s the story written in the “I” form of Frank McAlister, a rich South African financier who lives in both London and Cape Town. After a messy divorce he is now happily paired with Nellie, a Swede, and is seeking to bond and heal his daugher, Lucinda, a drug addict in rehabilitation. The three are united in his Cape Town home. Frank’s cousin Jaco is an unreconstructed Afrikaans supporter of the old regime. Psychotic, violent and deranged, he enters the Church Of Scientology and Frank has to pay $50000 to release him. Jaco returns to South Africa and his brooding presence casts an ominous shadow over the happy domesticity of Frank. I will not spoil the final twist but the author cleverly leads the reader in one direction only to reach a different denouement.
There are fascinating reflections on both contemporary British and South African society. The author’s father was a liberal editor of the Rand Daily Mail and although he inherited his anti-apartheid views he is also a critic and no apologist for the current regime. Not all the characters work. The writer in previous novels such as Other People ‘s Money is fascinated by wealth. In this novel there is a hedge fund millionaire who is more caricature than real.
The novel starts with Frank’s reflections and description of his family situation but the plot gathers so much tempo that it could be a film. The balance between descriptive writing and plot is delicate. I greatly admire Daphne du Maurier, a master storyteller (so is Somerset Maugham) but generally both not rated by the highbrows. I recently read James Salter’s Light Years. He writes like an angel but in the two novels of his I have read there was lack of narrational arc. Justin Cartwright is always a good read and that is scarcely a fault.