There was a happy time when I was naive enough to think that a story of wealth, power and corruption linked to a single public school might be a bit far-fetched. In The Sandpit, the drama revolves not around past or present pupils, but the parents of the children at one privileged Oxford prep school.
John Dyer is an alumnus of the school and for sentimental reasons decides to spend the little money he has on sending his son Leandro there. Dyer has, until recently, been working as a journalist in South America and his estranged partner, Leandro’s mother, is Brazilian. The school has changed, though, from being frequented by upper-middle-class merely wealthy British people to the international super-rich.
Dyer befriends an Iranian scientist and fellow parent, Rustum Marvar. They both feel in different ways estranged from the social set at the school and their relationship creates echoes for Dyer of his own childhood friendship with an eccentric fellow pupil.
Then Marvar tells him about a momentous discovery he has made, and his fears that his wife and young daughter in Iran have been imprisoned and tortured in order to get him to give up the secret. Various parents at the school, through their links to politics, finance and espionage, also have an interest in the discovery. Dyer now has a responsibility beyond his wish to care for Leandro – feeling the fate of both Marvar and the discovery are in his hands.
This may sound like a thriller but it has more the feel of a literary novel. It is quite atmospheric in places, the small cast built around the school recreating the claustrophobic, incestuous nature of the elite, and contrasting with Dyer’s experience as an international journalist, working throughout the world. (Dyer featured in a previous novel, The Dancer Upstairs, but this is not being marketed as a sequel and The Sandpit reads fine as a standalone.)
Dyer reflects a great deal on his childhood, his time in South America, his family and his obligations to his friend, his country and to the ideals which led him into journalism. It is often beautifully written and conveys the atmosphere of Brazil and the sinuous nature of memory. It also gives a sense of the disconnect between the outward respectability of Britain, as exemplified by institutions like the school, and the way money and power in fact move all the levers for an international elite (as highlighted in the recent publication of the Russia report).
There are also nice moments as we see Dyer’s normal life in Oxford, before he met Marvar, which he still tries to hang on to as events escalate. Many readers might envy his life spent immersed in research in university libraries, taking his breaks in favourite Oxford cafés.
The writing did, at times though, feel a little overdone. There are sections that don’t appear to add much to the story, such as chapter where Dyer takes his son to the Lakes on a fishing trip, and recalls how he bonded with his own father during similar excursions. You feel that this passage, and others like it, mean something to the author but they don’t fit in the book. The end, when it comes, feels a little contrived and convenient.
Despite those reservations, I did enjoy the atmosphere and the quality of the writing. If you’re more engaged by themes and prose than by a thriller plot, this is worth a read.
I received a copy of The Sandpit from the publisher via Netgalley.
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