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Oxford skulduggery: The Sandpit, by Nicholas Shakespeare, reviewed

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

The Sandpit Nicholas Shakespeare

Harvill Secker, pp.448, 16.99

Melancholy pervades this novel: a sense of glasses considerably more than half empty, with the levels sinking fast. This is largely due to its central character, John Dyer, a former journalist in his late fifties, who has returned from years in South America to live in Oxford and write a book about Portugal’s accidental discovery of Brazil. With him comes his 11-year-old son, who attends the Phoenix, a posh prep school based on Oxford’s real-life Dragon School.

Gradually, through a series of leisurely flashbacks, we learn that the love of Dyer’s life has died, his wife has left him, journalism has lost its soul and Brazil is going to pot. (Only at the end did I learn that The Sandpitis a sequel to an earlier novel, The Dancer Upstairs.) Meanwhile, back in the present, the Phoenix is no longer the preserve of the English middle classes that it was in Dyer’s time. It’s now a school where the international rich ‘launder their children’, and where Dyer feels like ‘the survivor of a tribe dying out’. The thoughts of one mother are ‘always two notes away from a pop song’.

A friendship rapidly develops between him and another parent, an Iranian physicist, who confides that he has just discovered something hush-hush about nuclear fusion. (‘If true, the implications were immense for everyone, for all time.’) Dyer also finds time for a fling with a Russian trophy wife-with-an-ulterior-motive (‘his groin tingled’) and an altogether more decorous relationship with an Oxford divorcée with ‘quick honest eyes’ and ‘English teeth’.

After three meetings with Dyer the physicist, with his son, vanish from Oxford, leaving our hero with a mysterious formula and his own notes about his friend’s conversation. Everybody wants this highly desirable hot potato, including a wonderfully slimy British spook named Updark. Dyer has the unenviable job of working out why, and what to do with it, while keeping himself and his own son from harm. His problems are finally resolved by the appearance of a deus ex machina that manages the difficult feat of being simultaneously predictable, implausible and unsatisfying.

However, we are, I think, intended to consider Dyer’s predicament in existential terms: at one point he refers to the physicist as ‘an illness who had come in through the cracks, to nest’ — in other words as a sort of external visitor embodying Dyer’s own problems and his dissatisfaction with the current state of the world.

On this level, The Sandpit works very well, and there is much else to enjoy. It is exceptionally well written, for a start, and it also expanded my vocabulary (maculate? Delible? Bloviated?). And Nicholas Shakespeare is so lyrical about fishing that it almost made me want to take angling lessons.

But the novel is trailed as ‘a remarkable contemporary thriller’— by William Boyd, no less. When it comes down to it, a thriller, even a literary one, really ought to thrill. This one doesn’t.

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