Monday, 23 May 2011

Richard Mason's debut The Drowning People... pre History of a Pleasure Seeker

I met Richard Mason in 2009, in a coffee shop in my home town, Glasgow, where he was living at the time. He'd just published his third book The Lighted Rooms (published as Natural Elements in the US and elsewhere), which is an enjoyable, thoughtful novel about growing old and growing up, and I was interviewing him. He was great company, a bundle of positive energy and extremely passionate about writing.
The Lighted Rooms is one of the few novels that looks clearly at the world of the fund manager and high finance. I enjoyed it - perhaps more so looking back on it than I thought I had at the time.
I caught up with Mason's 2001 debut, the multi million selling The Drowning People this month - it has just been reissued in the UK in a tenth anniversary edition complete with book club notes at the back.
Now the thing about Mason's debut is that when it was first published people focused on the size of the advance more than anything else.
Mason became a millionaire thanks to The Drowning People, which has sold by the bucket load - in particular in Germany, for some reason, but also round the world. And one of the reasons I like him is that he took that early good fortune and set up an educational trust for kids in South Africa to attend that country's most elite schools. It's a tremendous achievement in itself.
As to the book, Mason says The Drowning People was his attempt to tell the story of a man's life backwards. The protagonist is 83 (or so) and we meet him just after he has murdered his wife by blowing her brains out. He has then made it look as if she has committed suicide. The question is of course why, and that is what the book is about.
It's a great device. Actually it falls short of being his whole life and it is no surprise that Mason, who was in his teens and early twenties when he was working on this book, has actually written a novel about someone that age, but told through the filter of his older self. If you follow. The action of the book is entirely focused on the man's early years and his unhappy love affair with Ella Harcourt, his late wife's cousin and I felt it read like a young man's book in emotion and perspective.
It's also gloriously intriguing and the capturing of time and place - upper crust England pre WW2 - is well done. There are moments - I noticed them more from half way through - when I thought the dialogue slipped a little. I found myself tutting at some of the expressions which sounded like old fashioned English movies rather than real people. (The Lighted Rooms has no such issues.)
As for The Drowning People's big reveals: I have to be honest here, neither of them sustains great scrutiny. But in the pace and verve of the novel they work nicely and I really enjoyed them. Even though I'd pretty much guessed it from the outset and most readers I think would.
Despite the backward element, the book reads like an old fashioned whodunnit. I could imagine Christie or Sayers coming up with a similar plot. What I find interesting as a writer is that Mason hasn't gone on to write any other books that could be considered crime or as a whodunnit. He is clearly someone who considers himself a novelist rather than a genre writer - I gathered that from my interview with him. But actually, I hope he revives his interest in murder and intrigue in the future as he paces the plot well.
Mason has just published his latest novel, History Of A Pleasure Seeker, in the UK, set in Amsterdam during the Belle Epoque period. I'm not actually sure when exactly that is, but I'm glad to see that it's receiving warm reviews. The Guardian even goes so far to suggest that Richard Mason is finally living up to the early hype.

For more information about Richard Mason, take a look at his website

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