Top positive review
33 people found this helpful
ALMOST five stars
on January 27, 2014
I was attracted to this debut novel when first hearing about it: an historical reconstruction that juggles the present and the past in settings such as London, Paris, Iceland, and Sweden, the WW1 battlefields of Picardy, and the mountains of Snowdonia, the Alps, and Everest. All are among my favorite places and subjects. Then, I thought, what if the author gets it wrong? There have been other novels of similar ambition that have been let down by weak imagination, poor prose, or simply lack of familiarity with the settings and the depth of cultural history that they carry. So a plot involving a young Californian, straight out of college, going on a quest to prove his entitlement to a huge fortune did not promise the perspective that I, as a European of a much earlier generation, was looking for. But this was my first surprise, and a most welcome one too.
For the moment that Tristan Campbell lands in Heathrow and visits the offices of Twyning & Hooper, an old firm of London solicitors, he gets the tone absolutely right. Observant but not goggle-eyed, Tristan deals calmly with what he discovers, without novelistic detours for tourism. The money has been left by Ashley Walsingham, a young officer in the First World War who later died on an Everest attempt in the twenties, to a woman named Imogen Soames-Andersson. It appears that they fell in love shortly before Ashley was posted to France, but Imogen had disappeared by the time of his death. It is possible that Imogen and Ashley were Tristan's great-grandparents; it is up to him to prove it before the limitation runs out on the trust in two months' time.
It is an artificial premise, to be sure, but Justin Go handles it with aplomb, jumping back and forth over the hundred-year gap without putting a foot wrong. He has the effective idea of interleaving Tristan's search with chapters telling the story of Imogen and Ashley directly, and I found myself unable to put the book down, because no sooner had I learned something in one period than I wanted to follow it up with the other. And an absorbing love story it is, although there were times when I just wanted to shake some sense into the young people for some stubborn decisions that would affect the rest of their lives. There is a romance of sorts in the wings for Tristan too, but it is much less gripping than that of his maybe-ancestors.
That weakness is one reason why I can give the book four-point-something stars, but don't feel I can round it up. Also, as the book goes on, there is a kind of neatness to the way Tristan always manages to come up with something; surely an undergraduate history degree is not enough to make him quite so darned good at this? There are actually places when Tristan asks himself the same questions, but they are never really answered. And while I salute Justin Go for avoiding an over-neat ending, he left too much in the air to satisfy me. But it was a great trip while it lasted, and I would gladly pass the book on to others.