“Only Time Will Tell” is the opening volume in a new series from best-selling author Jeffrey Archer. It covers the life and times of Harry Clifton, an English boy who first appears as a zygote and then goes on to (slightly) more interesting things. Reading this book is like watching TV when you’ve lost the remote. You keep watching, but you don’t know why.
Harry’s life might or might not have begun when his mother had a lapse of judgment while on a works outing to Weston-super-Mare. She marries Arthur Clifton shortly thereafter, hopes for the best, and Harry shows up eight months later. We then take up Harry’s life from the age of 6, when he escapes the working-class misery of his family life by getting a scholarship to boarding school.
The first half of the book is pretty much “Tom Brown’s Schooldays,” as written by Ernest Hemingway on an off day. Take every cliche you’ve ever read about English boarding schools — outgrown clothes, family sacrifice to buy required cap and blazer, sadistic prefects, social snobbery, cruel mockery, best friends acquired in an instant, slippering and caning, dreadfully important examination results, petty crime blamed on Our Hero, nobility of character leading to brink of disaster, wise advice from strange old man — and here it is, rendered in a series of declarative sentences stripped of nuance and dimensionality. The prose is slicker than snot: clear, smooth, slipping along from page to page, and the bland dialogue offers no witty lines to break the hypnotic drone. (“I’m well, sir. I was wondering if you could advise me on a private matter.” “Fire away, old fellow.”)
There are secrets concerning Harry’s parentage, but Harry Clifton, alas, is much less charismatic than Harry Potter, and he has dull friends. His gift is for singing, not wizardry, and that disappears when his voice breaks. The mystery of Arthur Clifton’s death, such as it is, is gradually revealed by predictable stages through the first half of the book, which is slightly less descriptive than an Audubon guide to trees.
The pace and interest pick up once Harry gets out of school, but this is not the sort of historical fiction that immerses readers and gives them a feeling of being there. Instead, we get brief bursts of data concerning clothes, movies, cars and meals, between which a well-constructed plot is performed by stick figures (calling them “cardboard” would be giving them one dimension too many).
Archer seldom bothers to tell us what any of the main characters look like, beyond an occasional vague allusion to Harry’s mother as “classy.” His studious friend has — of course — spectacles that constantly slide down his nose. We’re told that Harry is a bright, curious boy, but we never see him actually do or say anything clever.
To give Archer credit, he understands the class culture and attitudes of Britain between the wars. Harry’s mother struggles to find employment, becomes a tea-shop waitress, finally buys a tea shop (which promptly burns to the ground) and then resorts to prostitution to keep her boy in school.
The only thing driving this story is the plot. Archer knows how to dole out tiny crumbs of suspense right up to the last page, which ends with — I have to admit — a really excellent cliffhanger, meant to inveigle the reader into purchasing Volume 2 of the Clifton Chronicles.
Gabaldon is the author of “Outlander” and other historical novels. Her next book, “The Scottish Prisoner,” will be released Nov. 29.
ONLY TIME WILL TELL
By Jeffrey Archer
386 pp. $27.99