Archer channels his nasty side

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 April, 2011, 12:00am


Only Time Will Tell
by Jeffrey Archer
Pan Macmillan HK$247

Last year's Jeffrey Archer offering was another collection of unchallenging short stories. Thereby Hangs A Tale was the author almost parodying himself with gentle yarns mostly from his always-slightly-retro England. It's safe to say he probably didn't break a sweat with that one.

This year he's redeemed himself: Only Time Will Tell appears to have been written by a different person.

Indeed, there are two Jeffrey Archers. The well-behaved populist scribe, who pens best-sellers for the airport bookstore and for unadventurous bookshelves from Hampstead to Discovery Bay. This was the affable smoothie I met at a London literary event last year, sipping tea and making self-effacing jokes in the manner of the local vicar.

Then there's Nasty Jeff, the darker persona that has occasionally surfaced over the years, particularly during his well-documented brushes with the law. And this is who I saw flashes of during an interview at the Landmark Mandarin a few years ago, fixing me with a raptor's eyes whenever I asked a question not to his liking, and making rude but indisputably true observations about journalists, photographers and dentists (all of whom he apparently doesn't care for on a bad day). He didn't mention hookers though (the testimony of a working girl was his undoing in a highly publicised court case), and I didn't dare ask.

That afternoon his eyes never sparkled more brightly than when recalling the many colourful characters he'd shared various cells with at London's Belmarsh Prison and other correctional facilities.

Nasty Jeff's a taker of audacious risks, for which he's paid a heavy price on occasion. He's a raconteur with a mischievous grin. And he's the far more interesting of the two. Thankfully this is the Jeffrey Archer who wrote Only Time Will Tell. It's bold, ambitious, English noir with dark shadows, and is one of the biggest risks of his writing career - given that it's part one of a five-part epic called The Clifton Chronicles, and whose borders are not yet fully mapped.

However, there's a whiff of deja vu here. On the evidence of Only Time Will Tell, Archer appears to be trying to get away with borrowing the shtick of one of Britain's most acclaimed novelists. Akin to multi-layered and intricately plotted William Boyd epics, Any Human Heart and The New Confessions, Only Time Will Tell features a plucky and empathetic Briton who endures the vicissitudes of the great calamitous arc of the 20th century. Sounds familiar and already dated.

Nevertheless, despite this, and the vastness of the historical canvas, Archer has succeeded in painting a mesmerising picture.

Protagonist and everyman Harry Clifton is born in 1920, in the southwestern English city of Bristol. At an early age he is told his father was killed in 1920 in the first world war but soon knows something's not right - that horrific conflict ended in 1918.

This realisation spawns two questions: did Arthur Clifton really die? And if so, what were the circumstances of his death? And is Harry actually the son of Arthur, a stevedore who worked in Bristol docks - or the first-born son of a scion of a wealthy industrialist who owns a shipping line? These questions propel this thrilling yarn.

Harry comes into this world in a dirt-poor household, torn apart by secrets and lies and the cruel snobbery and dreadful circumstances of Britain in the interwar years. This early domestic picture recalls the opening of the younger-reader classic Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in its depiction of childhood wretchedness. And, like Charlie, Harry is a good, clever child. Fortunately for him, his saintly mother spares no sacrifice to help him better himself. And she seeks the same answers as her son.

The plotting is tight and intricate, and Archer dovetails the lives of half a dozen principal characters into his most rollicking family epic since 1979's Kane And Abel.

Not only is this the story of the redoubtable Harry Clifton, it is also that of two intertwining dynasties: the Cliftons and Barringtons, whose family trees are handily provided before page one. The characterisation is rich, although more cartoonish than literary. But nobody buys Archer books expecting psychological subtlety, they buy them to lose themselves in another vivid world.

The growing Harry maintains a firm moral compass, despite taking a great deal of eminently British adversity in his stride, notably in his first few weeks at some posh school in the shires, where his peers try to crush his spirit with that special venom that toffs reserve for the proles. It's familiar ground, but sensitively narrated, even though Harry often comes off as an annoyingly clever and precocious little oik.

In a supporting role the cornily named Old Jack Tarr, a trampish geezer who lives in an abandoned train carriage by Bristol's docks - where he's one of the night watchmen - befriends the truant schoolboy Harry. Creepy paedophile or wise old sage? It all becomes clear in time.

Harry's mother, Maisie Clifton, is an English rose wilting in the humidity of thundery interwar years, when world events pauperised millions. She is almost faultless, and yet all too human. On a whim, she loses her virginity to some stranger in a grotty English seaside town, while her fiancee and his low-life brother are getting wasted at the pub. Could this nameless cad be Harry's father? The time line seems to suggest the possibility.

Only Time Will Tell has its main players narrate their own version of the events as a kind of preface to each section of the book, after which the narrative reverts to the third person. By this means, Archer provides valuable insights into the plot's machinations.

This is a rich and ambitious work that covers a lot of ground: the importance of courage, the frailty of human nature, the human capacity for cruelty and duplicity, the interplay of meritocracy and capricious fate, coming of age, murder, incest, the duality of truth and deception, among others.

Like many of Archer's longer novels, this tome has a biblical feel to it, even though the eventual triumph of good over evil is by no means assured. There are some really nasty pieces of work here. And they have a habit of coming back.

Archer might be the writer who sniffy bookish types love to hate, but there's no denying he's truly a master storyteller. And he knows it too. When I ask him if storytellers are born or made, he snaps 'born', then juts his chin out in the manner of a conquering general.

Only Time Will Tell ends with a brilliantly conceived cliff-hanger. But will his readers be able to tolerate a half-a-decade wait for the answers? If he fails to maintain the same high standard in the sequels, The Clifton Chronicles will turn into a monumental yawnfest. But if he can stay inspired, the series will have a loyal following.