- The Sandpit, by Nicholas Shakespeare. Havill Secker. $32.99.
There is quite a lot of Nicholas Shakespeare in John Dyer, the main character in The Sandpit, the author's first novel after a decade of writing non-fiction. Dyer previously featured in Shakespeare's 1995 novel, The Dancer Upstairs, subsequently filmed by John Malkovich.
Nicholas Shakespeare partly grew up in Brazil, where his father was in the British Embassy. John Dyer, a former Latin American newspaper correspondent, was based in Brazil, before returning to Oxford after the collapse of his marriage.
An unexpected inheritance has allowed Dyer, now in his late 50s, to enrol his 11-year-old son Leandro in the prestigious Phoenix prep school, aka Oxford's Dragon School, giving "his only child the indisputable kick-start of a middle-class British education which was all that England had to offer these days". Shakespeare attended the Dragon School, as did his children, after he and his family relocated from Tasmania.
Oxford, its topography, its libraries and its cafes feature prominently. Dyer is an Oxford graduate, while Shakespeare, who went to Cambridge University, refreshed his Oxford academic links in 2016 when he was appointed a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. Shakespeare, who now lives, as does Dyer, in Oxford's bohemian Jericho district, portrays an Oxford which is no longer split between town and gown but rather rich and poor.
Dyer feels somewhat of an outsider around the wealthy Phoenix parents, who include Russian oligarchs, British diplomats and a French-Canadian global hedge fund manager with "a chateau near Liege, a private jet at Kidlington and his long white athletes fingers in an awful lot of pies". He is a reluctant mixer with the North Oxford "polished -mobile -worktop Summertown brigade", who drink "eight pound change your life lattes", in the coffee shop run by a Phoenix father and "his new organic girlfriend".
Dyer is drawn into the current world of spies and intelligence agencies, when he befriends, on the Phoenix soccer field touchline, another outsider, Rustum Marvar, an Iranian scientist working on nuclear fusion at the Clarendon physics Laboratory. Marvar confides, in cryptic terms, his work to Dyer, who later writes down the conversation, but is sceptical, "It sounded like a speech he'd rehearsed in the loo". Dyer can't believe the Iranian physicist has cracked the algorithm to unlock fusion power, but, he reflects, stranger things have happened in science.
Marvar fears his wife and daughter in Iran have been abducted and his wife tortured and raped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, so as to ensure his research stays in Iran, "supposed to be a country dedicated to God. It was not".
Marvar then disappears with his son. Has he fled or, more likely, been kidnapped by a variety of interested intelligence services, "a broad church that worships different gods". Dyer, as the last person to talk with Marvar, becomes the centre of much attention, including sexually from Phoenix parent, Katya Petroschenko, a striking Russian Gazcom wife.
Dyer, "a bit player caught . . . cringing in the headlights of a juggernaut", descends into a "perpetual fear". His flat is searched, he is attacked in the street and a former school friend, a diplomat, now working for British intelligence, unceremoniously hauls him off to a warehouse in Eynsham Business Park for interrogation.
Old school ties mean nothing. Who can he trust with Marvar's algorithm, which "might set fire to the atmosphere, to water or give us sun on earth"? Certainly not British intelligence analyst Lorna, "under that smile, all sinew and steel".
Professor Bruce Whitten, the Australian head of the Clarendon Laboratory, is more interested in fundraising, dining at All Souls and celebrating his Fellowship to the Australian Academy of Science, while his American deputy, with links to the CIA, "behaved as though he had an unwarranted claim on Marvar's work".
Narrative tension dissipates, however, in the second half of the novel, as Dyer endlessly prevaricates on what to do with Marvar's algorithm, now precariously hidden in the Taylorian Library, where Dyer is writing a book on the Amazonian Indians.
Shakespeare juxtaposes Dyer's past and present, in particular through the Phoenix School, to examine father-son relationships, the nature of loyalty, social class and the pursuit of money without morality, before a conclusion which many will question.
Ultimately, we are more in Graham Greene territory than John le Carré, although without Shakespeare ever matching Greene's evocation of extreme moral quandary. Nonetheless, The Sandpit is elegantly written, with many apposite historical, literary and linguistic references, and marks a welcome return by Shakespeare to fiction writing.