Robert Harris once wrote that writing a book which was both a thriller and a literary novel is “a difficult trick but in my book the greatest to bring off.” It was something Graham Greene managed at least half-a-dozen times, and Nicholas Shakespeare now does it with The Sandpit. There are echoes of Greene, also of Conrad and Le Carré. Yet these influences have been absorbed as good writers always absorb the influence of their predecessors and go beyond it to make something that is wholly their own, striking an individual note.
The novel is set in Oxford, evocatively described. John Dyer, once a journalist, now a one-book author, has returned there with his 11-year-old son Leandro, after many years in Brazil. He spends days in one of the university libraries researching the early encounters of the Portuguese with the Tupi and other tribes, while Leandro attends the Phoenix Preparatory School as Dyer himself did 40 years ago.
Much in the school is as it was in Dyer’s day – even the sandpit where a bully once buried a model aeroplane Dyer had made is still there. But the clientele has changed. The parents he meets on the touchline at football matches are no longer members of the English professional middle-class. They are the new mega-rich, Russian oligarchs, financiers moving invisible money around the world and shorting the markets. There are a couple of exceptions. One, a contemporary of Dyer’s at the Phoenix, is a British diplomat with a connection to the Intelligence Services. The other, Rustum Marvar, is an Iranian nuclear physicist, on a temporary research assignment at a university laboratory. (The novel is set after the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal). Marvar’s son, Samir, is like Leandro, a talented footballer, but his wife and baby daughter are at home in Iran, securities for his good behaviour.
Dyer and Marvar come together when their sons are both being bullied by an older Russian boy, an oligarch’s son with a very attractive mother. Then Marvar comes to Dyer in a state of triumph and anxiety. He has created an equation and proved it by experiment which solves the problem of nuclear fusion; put into action, this could solve the world’s energy problems or destroy the world. Is there anyone who can be trusted with it? Not the mullahs in Tehran,though they are holding his wife hostage; not the Americans; not anyone really. Then he disappears, whether voluntarily or not, leaving his equation for Dyer to find, precisely because it is meaningless to him. So he has abdicated his judgement, or rather, passed the responsibility to Dyer.
That’s the set-up. It satisfies the Buchan criterion: that improbable events should remain within the realm of the possible. The thread of credibility may be stretched but is never snapped. The writer of this kind of novel walks a delicate line and it’s often the case that interest which must depend on persuasiveness ebbs as the action quickens. This doesn’t happen here, partly because the sense of place is so strong, partly because everyday life goes on – Leandro has to do his homework, shopping has to be done, meals eaten – and partly because Shakespeare realizes the importance of a change of tempo. So there is a delightful, even idyllic, passage when Dyer takes Leandro on a half-term break to fish a river in Lancashire, the same river where his father more than 40 years ago had taught him to cast a fly. One might add that Shakespeare is also very good at weather, always a good way of creating atmosphere. It’s a bleak late winter in Dyer’s Oxford. Dyer himself is an interesting and credible character, an unremarkable man caught up in the remarkable, but also a hero with a convincing past and uncertain future. The relationship between Dyer and Marvan is admirably handled. Greene gave one of his novels an epigraph from Conrad: “I only know that he who forms a tie is lost.” The tie Dyer forms with Marvan comes close to destroying him.
One good test of a novel is: does it re-read? Well, I’ve now read The Sandpit twice, and I’m pretty sure I shall read it again in a few months’ time.
Book review: The Sandpit, by Nicholas Shakespeare, Harvill Secker, 429pp, £14.99
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