By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 29, 2009
By Richard Mason
Knopf. 398 pp. $25.95
Richard Mason's impressive third novel is dedicated to his great- grandmother, "who was incarcerated in a British concentration camp as a young child" during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. Born in South Africa a mere 31 years ago, Mason clearly has been blessed with unusual talent and a searching intelligence. "Natural Elements" embraces a formidable variety of subjects and themes, many pertinent to today's headlines, and though at times Mason struggles to connect them to each other, the novel's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.
It is the story of two women, the 80-year-old Joan McAllister and her daughter, Eloise. Joan has lived alone in London in the many years since the death of her husband, but the time has come for her to move into a retirement home. The search has been presided over by Eloise, a successful trader in "niche commodities," in particular "exotic ores," who has tons of money and is determined to do well by her mother, who "her whole life . . . had done what other people wished her to do."
They settle on the Albany, presided over by the Nursing Manager, a walking nightmare, the cartoonish embodiment of everything that's wrong with what those in the business often call "elder care," but Eloise decides that the Albany is a well-run place worth the forbidding cost. After all, the small fund where she works is deep into osmium, a chemical element that is "harder than diamond" and is believed to have rich commercial possibilities if it can be combined with one or more other elements.
The chief researcher on osmium is a scientist with whom Eloise is friendly. He tells her that he is "in the home straight" of osmium development, on the strength of which she persuades her boss to pour $65 million into osmium, on top of the $65 million it already has invested. Anticipating a huge bonus, she packs Joan off "on the Trip of a Lifetime . . . an experience she would never forget; a swan song to vitality that would ease the coming transition for them both."
So off they fly to South Africa to revisit scenes from Joan's childhood. In a war museum Joan finds, tucked away in a great mass of papers, a journal written in 1903 by her grandmother, "a full and accurate testimonial of my experiences during the recent War of Independence." It is a heartbreaking document from which Joan cannot bear to be separated, so she packs it in her belongings -- "This was Joan's first theft" -- and takes it back to England, "a talisman, of sorts: a companion in that dreadful, well-scrubbed nursing home."
The Albany is every bit as dreadful as Joan had feared, with its bossy, patronizing, indifferent staff and its decrepit inmates. But Joan has something to fall back on, "a rich inner world which she disguised from her daughter, and from everyone else." An enthusiastic pianist when she was younger, she is now visited from time to time by a pair of piano pedals, a "mysterious" vision "that allowed her to travel to all manner of places," as well as to play -- at least in her mind -- piano pieces that she cherished in the past.
What she has no way of knowing, and what only gradually dawns on the reader, is that she is in the early stages of dementia and that her decline eventually will accelerate. For now, though, her mind is sharp. Visiting a library she comes across a 15-year-old boy with whom she quickly strikes up a friendship. He is researching the history of the wealthy family that founded the library, one that turns out to have had strong connections to the British side of the Boer War. Joan becomes obsessed with the family's letters and other papers, and soon finds eerie parallels between its South African experiences a century earlier and her own family's.
"What a terrible century the Anglo-Boer War had ushered in, she thought; how little attention had been paid to its lessons." That is true, though I rather wish that Mason had resisted the temptation to bring Iraq and Guantanamo into the equation, not because my sentiments on those subjects differ significantly from his but because lectures about contemporary political issues that are delivered in the midst of novels essentially unrelated to those issues invariably strike me as gratuitous.
A further difficulty with "Natural Elements" is that in attempting to depict Joan's slide into the depths of dementia, Mason has set himself a daunting challenge he does not fully meet. At first, it is tempting to dismiss Joan as a silly old woman lost in worlds of make-believe. She arouses one's sympathy, but until we understand what's happening to her, it isn't easy to take her as seriously as she deserves to be. Still, Mason has done something admirable in trying to imagine his way into a condition that does not lend itself to facile description.
Beyond that, "Natural Elements" is a mature, inventive, ambitious novel. Among other things, it is about investment bubbles and the workings of the commodities markets; scientific research and the perilous paths down which it can go; retirement communities, nursing homes and other institutions into which we dump people for whom we do not have, or to whom we do not want to give, sufficient time; the tensions within families and the ties that somehow survive them; the aftershocks of a distant war that brutalized innocent people and left memories haunted by loss.
To all of this Mason brings a clear, inviting prose style that resists at every turn the temptation to be showy. To be as young as he is and already have three novels under his belt -- the first two were "The Drowning People" (1999) and "Us" (2004) -- is impressive enough, but to have written novels as good as these is far more so.