Despite thematic familiarity, the latest episode of the Clifton saga works because of the author’s trademark ability to keep readers hooked, says ZARA KHAN.
If you are a Jeffrey Archer fan, then you know that he usually sticks to the familiar — politics, the aristocracy, politics, prison life, politics, rags-to-riches, and politics are a few of his favourite themes. He is also known for sprinkling a few autobiographical elements in his stories, alternatively thrilling and annoying his readers with devious twists in the plot and intriguing cliffhangers.
The third chapter in The Clifton Chronicles spans the lives of the Clifton-Barrington family from 1945 to 1957. Spoiler alert: Harry and Emma are united in holy matrimony and set up housekeeping at Barrington Hall. Harry, who is quite obviously a thinly-veiled Archer, is going from strength to strength as a best-selling novelist. We follow him on book tours as he pathetically attempts to persuade his American audience that he is proud to be England’s best-selling author (“But I’m not, by a long chalk”), while fending off his attractive publicist’s advances (“If you’ve always been my biggest fan, perhaps it’s time you read this”).
Emma, that paragon of all virtues, continues to study further, becomes the first female board member of the family shipping company, while bringing up her deceased father’s love-child, putting up with her son’s adolescence, accompanying Harry overseas and playing supportive sister to the politically ambitious Giles.
Giles, a very likable fellow thus far — even more so than Harry, in my opinion, because he seems too good to be true while Giles is more human — in this book, is slightly disappointing. Although he forms an undeniably strong part of the narration, his behaviour — particularly that of slobbering over the devious Lady Virginia — seems rather out of character. We follow his rise as a Labour MP as his family gives up its Tory loyalties for him.
Grace, the bluestocking who appreciates the irony of wearing blue stockings, embodies the requisite “spinster aunt” in every family. Another disappointment, she has a lot of potential and deserves a stronger storyline.
Jessica, the foundling and child prodigy, is as yet unaware that the older brother she hero-worships is, in fact, her nephew. A loner, we see her and her talent grow as Harry and Emma do their best to encourage her art.
Sebastian, Harry and Emma’s precocious progeny, in the latter half of the book, is the pivot of the narration. Bright like his father, with an eye for the ladies like his uncle, and a naiveté all his own, he displays a knack for getting himself into scrapes.
The villains, meanwhile, are clichéd enough to be called caricatures. Major Fisher, Harry and Giles’s old school nemesis, redoubles his efforts to bring the Clifton-Barrington family down. Lady Virginia, the woman scorned, seethes, fumes and joins forces with Fisher.
Enter Don Pedro Martinez, an Argentinean Mafioso and Sebastian’s best friend’s father. Sebastian, with his endearingly annoying innocence and uncanny talent for trouble, involves himself with Martinez and consequently international art fraud. When the older generation rushes to his rescue, Martinez swears revenge, the Family way.
The book ends with another typical cliff(ton)-hanger, which makes you want to tear your hair out, collar the author and demand to know what happens next. Despite every single theme from every one of Archer’s earlier books — from spies to accidental incest — being a part of The Clifton Chronicles, the saga still works because of the author’s trademark ability to keep readers hooked.
Despite the occasional pages you might want to skip, most of them involving the election process — after all, we’ve had enough of that in Sons of Fortune, First Among Equals, and others — you feel compelled to follow the family’s lives, if only to shake your head at Giles’ cringing servility towards Lady Virginia , smile at Emma’s academic achievements, and sniff disapprovingly at Sebastian’s more idiotic escapades — I mean, come on kid, don’t you know better than to get caught with the serving maid after lights out? It almost makes you wonder how he ever won that scholarship to Cambridge.
The Clifton Chronicles was originally intended to be a five-part series, tracing the family saga from 1920 to 2020. However, as Archer recently revealed during the Bangalore leg of his Indian tour to promote the book, it may go to six or seven.
Best Kept Secret; Jeffrey Archer, Pan Macmillan, Price not mentioned.