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The Night Climbers
By Ivo Stourton
Simon Spotlight Entertainment / ISBN: 978-1-4169-4869-8
As regular readers know, when it comes to many topics in the arts, I like to do things a little differently here at CCLaP than at many other organizations; to cite one example, as a book reviewer I deliberately try to learn as little "industry" information about the publishing world as possible, even to the extent of purposely avoiding such publications as Booklist and Publishers Weekly, even to the extent of never reading those "books to keep your eye out for" articles that come at the beginning of every literary season. And the reason I do that, of course, is because of the lessons I learned from working at a college radio station for four years as an undergraduate; that too much exposure to the secret gears actually running an artistic industry can very easily ruin whatever simple appreciation you used to have for that medium. I like to approach the books reviewed here in the same way as I imagine my average reader does; I like just walking randomly into bookstores and libraries, picking books sometimes based solely on what the cover looks like or what the dustflap has to say, of occasionally hearing someone mention a book that sounds intriguing and maybe filing it away in my endless "books to get around to one day reading" list at the back of my Moleskine notebook. It's a process I feel would become corrupted if I were to learn too much "inside information" about the books in question; that if I were to follow the fates of certain titles for months before they came out, if I were to see the entire promotional campaigns behind some of these titles, it would not only negatively affect what books I end up reviewing here but what I have to say about them.
And in fact I can think of no better example of what I'm talking about than the subject of today's essay, the solid and entertaining The Night Climbers by British first-time novelist Ivo Stourton; it is a book I just literally came across by accident at my neighborhood library earlier this winter, a book that probably otherwise would've never come to my attention (especially if my plate were full with a bunch of insider-benefit review copies of books I didn't particularly want to read in the first place), a book I checked out literally because I liked the cover and because the concept sounded intriguing. And it's indeed an intriguing book, I've now found after finishing it -- not a masterpiece by any means, and a little derivative to some other books I've read in the past concerning the same subjects, but certainly a whole lot better than most people's first novels, an undeniably tight page-turner that will really suck you into its cultured, high-class Cambridge world, a book you'll find yourself quickly zooming through and saying at the end, "Wow, that was a great little novel!" When such a thing is a pleasant surprise like that, it affirms to me that I've made the right career choice, that reviewing books for a living really is as fun as it can sometimes seem; if I had been following the fate of this book for months, though, if I had been bombarded with marketing material from overzealous publicists, I know for a fact that I wouldn't have liked it nearly as much, that I would've been disappointed by its shortcomings instead of delighted by its strengths. I like to think that makes me more like you than a lot of other book reviewers; I like to think that makes CCLaP's reviews a little more relevant to you than at other publications. It certainly makes my job a lot more fun, I can tell you that.
The son of noted radio personality Ed Stourton, recipient of a double first in English at Cambridge (American translation: really good grades), The Night Climbers is in fact set at Cambridge itself, at a college there called Tudor that's been around just as long as the other ones. In fact, that's an important beginning thing to make clear about this novel, that Cambridge itself and its system of millennia-old colleges is treated almost like a main character by Stourton, in that a main reason to read this book is to wallow in the historical details and quirky corners of such places. As seen through the eyes of James, our middle-class freshman everyman protagonist, Tudor is a place of infinite fascinations and surreal nooks; a place where history, class, money and manners bear down on you at all times like an physical weight, a place where it's very easy to come across graffiti in dorm rooms dating from the 1600s. For those who love stories set in such environments, you're going to love this novel in a fetishistic way; Stourton really earns his double first in English here when it comes to the "Oxbridge" aspect of it all, using a breezy and conversational writing style to paint a deep and complex portrait of a city he obviously loves, and a university system that was obviously good to him.
It is there where James is introduced to the other thing we so closely associate with these environments -- the filthy rich -- by accidentally saving a fellow student named Michael one night from the clutches of the police, who turns out to be one of a foursome of upper-class pals there at college with him. And the reason he gets to save him is because Michael is crouched on the ledge of James' dorm balcony at the time; turns out that among lots of other activities, the upper-class foursome have also formed a thrill-seeking group called "The Night Climbers," who illegally scale the walls of the endless Gothic architecture in Cambridge at night, staying only half a step ahead of campus security. Now, make no mistake, this novel doesn't actually have anything to do with the real Night Climbers of Cambridge who really have existed in one form or another for decades; here it's merely a plot device used to introduce the characters in the first place, as well as to provide a nice attention-getting title for the novel itself (and subsequent spooky Goth cover art, which is partly what drew me to this book in the first place -- I've said it before and I'll say it again, cover art matters).
No, what this book is really about is James' detached yet growing relationship with the group in question, as well as detailed observations by him of how each of these people came into their money and what they're all doing at Tudor in the first place. And in this, you can really see The Night Climbers as a deep character study as much as a zippy mystery-based actioner, where a growing understanding of the people in question go hand-in-hand with the events that are transpiring around them. There is the aforementioned Michael, for example, a dopey yet sympathetic jock type; there is Lisa, the hard-nosed hiphop business woman, who has earned all her money instead of inheriting it, managing a series of gray-market events around the city (bare-knuckles boxing, etc) for a piece of the cut. And then there's Jessica, the platinum-blonde ingenue who James instantly falls in love with; and then that leads us to the most interesting member of the group of all, the one the entire plotline is centered around in fact, the half-black globetrotting Renaissance man Francis. The love child of a secret dalliance between a respected conservative politician and an African supermodel, Francis has grown up not only stupendously wealthy but also seeing a larger slice of life than many others; he has ended up at Tudor more on a whim than anything else, too busy drinking and gambling to worry too much about classes and the like.
Why yes, it does have a certain Great Gatsby flair to it all, and there's a reason so many other reviewers compare the two books; they both feature a likable audience stand-in peeking in on a grossly decadent upper class, within a cultured and monied world where you are surrounded by gilded history around every corner, and where the people in question are inwardly miserable despite all their advantages in life. And like I said, such details even figure heavily into the machinations of the caper-based plot itself; for example, there's the fact that students in this utterly entitled hothouse atmosphere can literally check out famous pieces of art from Tudor's permanent collection, to hang in their dorm rooms that semester for "creative inspiration." And thus is it that Francis ends up with an extremely rare Picasso sketch in his room all year, a rare early-Cubist treatment that they figure would be easily worth 12 million pounds (US$24 million) on the open market; and thus it is that when Francis' healthy trust fund from his guilty-feeling dad is finally cut off, the group starts making plans to replace the Picasso with a forgery, slipping it back into a dank basement at the end of term without anyone being the wiser, and selling the real thing through Lisa's gray-market connections to the tune of $8 million instead.
This is what I mean, in fact, when I say that The Night Climbers is a fine example of deep plot and deep characterization coming together; because the more the plans for the caper continue, the more we also learn about the relationship these people have because of the obscene amount of money they all blow through, which let's face it was mostly being supplied by Francis' dad's love-child hush money, ultimately affecting all of them once it dries up. Stourton does a fascinating job here showing us a peek of what one side of the cultured upper class must be like (and he should know -- he's personal buddies in real life, for example, with future king Prince William); of the way that such insane amounts of money can so easily and quickly corrupt not only friendships but romantic relationships, how it can permanently alter the way you perceive the world around you. (And when I say an insane amount of money, I mean burning through a million bucks of coke and gambling in a single weekend; yeah, an insane amount of money.) A rational part of us knows that not all the filthy rich of the world are like the tragically loathsome antiheroes seen here; but for a lot of us who aren't filthy rich, though, I think we gain a certain satisfaction about envisioning the world that way.
Like I said, in this The Night Climbers shares a lot with The Great Gatsby (which by sheer coincidence I'll be reviewing here at the site tomorrow, as part of the CCLaP 100 series); and like I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, it unfortunately also shares this with such other well-known (and extremely well-done) projects as The Secret History, Brideshead Revisited and more. In fact, that's about the biggest complaint about the book I have, is simply that it gets derivative to its detriment at points, feeling at times like a low-rent version of better-heard stories you've already come across a dozen times, if you happen to be a heavy reader; and since this is an erudite thriller set in a centuries-old dusty academic system, you have to imagine that its target audience precisely is heavy readers. And there are other problems too, to tell you the truth; for one example among several, that Stourton gives James an inconsistent attitude about money, with him decadently wallowing in it when it's around but not particularly missing it when it's gone. As good as it is, let's not forget that the novel is ultimately the product of a 25-year-old first-time author, and has its share of stereotypical problems as a result; too much exposition at points, overwritten scenes sometimes, an awkward pacing at places that makes the reading go jerkily instead of smoothly.
But it's precisely because Stourton is a first-time novelist that I'm willing to cut him a break concerning all this; they are minor issues only, after all, with him otherwise having the kind of confident handle over such major things like story, character and dialogue as any fully-mature writer. It's one of those books where your opinion can ultimately lean a lot of different directions, based on where you're coming from as you approach it; you can see it as an extra-good first book, or maybe a mainstream one that isn't quite as good as it could be, or maybe a silly potboiler that tries to invoke the spirit of Donna Tartt but without any of her breathtaking depth. Like I said, I myself am choosing to take the first approach with my own review today, and this is in fact one of the reasons why I avoid industry publications like the plague; because if I had spent the last year instead reading about its celebrated signing and hefty advance, and all the machinations of bringing it to print, I would've been much more tempted to instead be disappointed by it. It's a good first novel, one that can be enjoyed by both pasty intellectuals and sweaty beachgoers simultaneously; that's the most important thing about it, as far as I'm concerned, something I think ultimately worth picking up if randomly stumbling across it at a store or library. As a heavy reader, I love having experiences like that; I hope you enjoy reading essays that come from that standpoint as well.
Out of 10: