THE DROWNING PEOPLE

By Richard Mason

Warner. 340 pp. $24

Reviewed by Adam Mazmanian

It's impossible to consider the literary merits of The Drowning People separate and apart from the outrageous sum of money paid to its 20-year-old Oxonian author. Even the publisher touts the "record-setting two-book deal" among the book's selling points. Rightly or not, the huge advance (in excess of $1 million combined from Mason's American and British publishers) sets expectations so high that only an extraordinary effort could meet them. The Drowning People, a dense, plodding, relentlessly interior thriller, is at best a mixed debut from a promising genre writer. At worst it is the embodiment of the cynical hustle that is the book business, a critique underscored by the editor's gushing praise of Mason: "He's not only articulate and charming, but he looks like Hugh Grant."

Because Mason is so young and because he is a talented writer (and because he has a sweet face, boyish and gentle like Hugh Grant's), it is somewhat unfair to take him to task for his publisher's marketing strategies. However, for Warner to make its money back on this book, they're going to have to sell it and sell it hard. The Warner hype machine -- responsible for the unaccountable popularity of such atrocities as The Bridges of Madison County and The Notebook -- has an impressive record of moving less than quality product, so any harm to Mason's reputation falls within the limits of acceptable collateral damage.

The story is improbable from the very beginning. James Farrell, a violinist, aged 70, has murdered Sarah, his wife of 45 years. To explain why, he recounts his doomed romance with Ella Harcourt (Sarah's first cousin) 50 years previous, in the mid-1990s, meaning that Jamie is telling his tale late in the first half of the 21st century. This appears to be an easy-to-ignore conceit; the story hinges on abstruse British modes of class and duty, and the temporal distance gives Mason an excuse to explain the intricate web of British social relations to a (presumably American) audience without appearing to condescend. Yet even the brief treatment of the novel's present makes it clear that these same attitudes inhere in the future England of Mason's imagination, if only as a historical vestige. In other words, things then are much the same as they are today, rendering his invention useless except as a device to prevent him from setting the novel in the past.

James meets the troubled Ella and woos her away from her fiance, Charlie Stanhope, a stolid, well-born young banker, the very model of English decorum. Though Ella does not love Charlie, she felt compelled to marry him because of her duty to her inheritance: the forbidding island Castle of Seton. Ella was educated in the United States (moved there by her father after her mother died in a car crash) and is conflicted about the obligations of her ancestry. As she laments to James, "Family tradition is so tangled up with who I really am that sometimes I wonder how much of me is real."

Sarah, however, is to the manner born; at ease with her upper-class heritage, she despises her cousin Ella and covets Seton for her own. Indeed, she was in love with Charlie when Ella swooped down on him. No stranger to tragedy herself, Sarah lost both parents in the crash that claimed Ella's mother. (If you're rubbing your temples in anguish, I'm explaining it correctly.) The mystery here (if it can be called that -- the story unfolds predictably) is how James came to marry Sarah even though he truly loved Ella.

James's musical career takes off, and his and Ella's romance blossoms. "We smashed our world with the arrogance of gods: tradition, responsibility; social constriction; all crumbled under the vehemence of our attack," Mason writes. "We thought to re-create society in our own image. And in so doing we forgot our place in the heavenly order. Human beings are not gods; they should not play with divine fire. Ella and I committed the sin which the Greeks have taught us is fatal."

As the passage above suggests, the novel is humorless, prolix and severe in a way I can only describe as reactionary, as though Mason were personally offended by late-20th-century advances in narration and were on a one-man mission to turn back the clock. Or perhaps it can be read with an eye to the wink, the wry aside, evidence of a youthful writer predisposed to mischief. There are a few signs: James Farrell himself may be named for the American novelist known for his dense, descriptive -- some might say turgid -- interior style (cf. Studs Lonigan). The only other writers named in the novel are Edith Wharton and Henry James, two of Mason's stylistic progenitors. Tantalizing though these hints at self-awareness may be, stacked up against the rest of the novel they suggest that the author is entirely in earnest.

Where Mason shows his youth is in his narcissistic insistence on the celebrity of his characters. It's not enough that James is a talented musician; he must be the best of his generation, profiled repeatedly in the Times. When James and his accompanist, Eric, travel to Prague to preside over an auction of Eric's aunt's paintings and to study music with an accomplished teacher, it's international news. When Sarah publishes an article in an historical journal about some of the more sordid aspects of Harcourt family history, including the suicide of Ella's grandmother, timed to coincide with Ella's cancellation of her engagement to Charlie, the story makes headlines in the tabloid press. The characters' renown adds no weight to their suffering. They are not heroes; they have no power save what they wield over each other. It's as though Mason's lack of confidence in his characters impelled him to use an outside spotlight to command attention.

All that said, Mason is only 20. He can write a good sentence, even if he's less adept at stringing them together. He's written a fair approximation of a 19th-century psychological novel, and doubtless he has the ability to write a contemporary story. In the meantime, The Drowning People will likely become a movie, probably one with a lot of nudity and rather less brooding monologue, vastly improving the tale.

Adam Mazmanian is a writer living in New York City.