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It is 1907. The Belle Epoque is in full swing. Piet Barol has escaped the drabness of the provinces for the grandest mansion in Amsterdam. As tutor to the son of Europe’s wealthiest hotelier, he learns the intimate secrets of a glittering family – and changes it for ever. With nothing but his exquisite looks and wit to rely on, Piet is determined to make a fortune of his own. But in the heady exhilaration of this new world, amid delights and temptations he has only dreamed of, Piet discovers that some of the liaisons he has cultivated are dangerous indeed …
NB: This review includes some sexual content but is all the better for it …
As you may know, I’m a huge fan of Richard Mason and have been from the very beginning when I was swept off my feet by his marvellous first novel, The Drowning People. To my mind, he’s not put a foot wrong since, although I appreciate that for some strange reason this appears to be a minority view. I’ve also previously reviewed his book The Lighted Rooms at Vulpes Libris.
So I’m very pleased (pleasured, one might say) to see that his latest work is doing so well. As it should as, once again, it’s a class act though even I admit this one is perhaps more accessible than his usual, still splendid offerings.
We meet our main character, Piet, taking up a role as tutor to a young boy, Egbert, with a lot of problems in the middle of a family which also has its fair share of tensions, marital and otherwise. Piet is a total delight and even when he was doing something distinctly dodgy or amoral I was desperate for him to succeed, and traumatised when for any reason he didn’t. I think it’s that hint of vulnerability in the midst of the charming bluster I couldn’t resist. He’s like a cross between Raffles and Casanova, with just a hint of Russell Brand to see him through.
Yes, the book is a little slow at the start, but it soon gathers pace so hang on in there, as the story of Piet’s stay in the Vermeulen-Sickerts family is truly gripping, in a whole variety of ways. The contrast between his poor background, and the riches and elegance of the family is subtly done, and I particularly loved the way he negotiated his way through the minefield of social mores, helped only by the influence of his deceased French mother and his ability to watch and learn from what everyone else is doing.
I also enjoyed the way we see situations from the point of view of other characters in the house as well. I empathised both with Jacobina and her desperation for affection, and with Maarten who doesn’t see the effect his long-held religious vow of sexual abstinence is having on his wife. Both people are sympathetically portrayed and very well-rounded. Piet too respects and admires them both, and it’s interesting and somehow very heartening that when Jacobina begins an affair with him, those feelings never change. There’s a genuine love of life in him that simply can’t be tied down, and it’s this which becomes such a driving force of the book.
Surprisingly perhaps, in the midst of all this, Piet eventually becomes a very effective tutor to Egbert. I was fascinated by the description of the young boy, who suffers from a kind of overwhelming OCD which has imprisoned him so thoroughly within its impossible structures that he hasn’t left the home in years:
Egbert stepped across the tiles, swiftly touching four white ones in succession, then a black one, then another six whites. He moved rhythmically, backwards and forwards, up and down the entrance hall, his face tense with concentration. He heard the clock chime the quarter-hour, then the half-hour, then it was 6 a.m. and he heard the unmistakable sounds of life coming from his own house.
It’s only when Piet is nastily humiliated by the two daughters on a day out that he – quite understandably – breaks and does something so dramatic in terms of the young boy’s problems that it changes everything. At last, Egbert begins to listen to his tutor, and the story of how they both fight and overcome his demons together is touchingly portrayed.
The relationship Piet has with his fellow servants is also a dynamic one – he is, as tutor, the bridge between the “upstairs” and “downstairs” worlds, and it’s a grand way of seeing how the household work together as a whole. I must also mention the love of music which fills the book, and occasionally acts as a communication tool between characters – I thought this was charmingly done, though alas I’m no musician myself.
Let me then come to the erotic content – it’s literary, laced beautifully with humour, and perfectly judged as well as being a pleasure (sorry!) to read. I liked the fact that Piet inspires erotic affection in both men and women, although his only sexual relationship during his time as tutor is with Jacobina. That said, he and fellow servant Didier are very close and there is one key erotically-charged scene between them which, again, is very well done. This relationship also helps drive the plot in the final parts of the book.
As we come to the end of the tutor section and Piet prepares to sail to America to make his fortune there, there’s a dramatic scene where all the life he has built up around him suddenly comes tumbling down. At this point, I did feel that Mason rushed things rather and the situation between Maarten and Jacobina would have in fact been very different to what is portrayed here, but it remains a good plot twist nonetheless.
The last part of the book deals with Piet’s voyage and the life and people he meets on board. Although he’s rather down on his luck initially, he comes into contact once more with Didier who has followed him out of love, and through this is able to upgrade his onboard lifestyle very happily. There are some wonderful and sometimes humorous descriptions, through Piet’s eyes, of the class divide on the ship, which I found really fascinating:
Piet excused himself and went on deck, past the ranks of deckchairs, the shuffleboard players and strolling couples. At the aft section was a spiked trellis, separating tourist from the roomier portion assigned to first class. He went there and leaned over the rails, staring at the sea. His expression was so tragic that a bold little girl asked if he was all right.
I also very much enjoyed the rise and fall of the story arch between Piet and Didier, and the portrayal of the latter’s unrequited love is expertly done. How I felt for him.
It’s during the voyage that Piet experiences his first on-the-page homosexual encounter with a richer older man. Jay. It’s a delightful episode, managing to be both erotic and poignant, as well as possessing that subtle humour Mason does so well:
Jay acted with such confidence he did not resist, and his instinct to do so was dampened by the knowledge that the situation that now presented itself – in the middle of the sea, in the middle of the world, in the middle of the night – would never arise again. He said nothing when Jay kissed the back of his legs, his bearded chin sending shivers across his skin. And when Jay’s tongue reached his balls he let out a low ecstatic moan. Other boys had played with his prick or sometimes sucked it but had never touched him there; and the women he had seduced had been far too well-bred to think of doing so.
Later, this encounter influences part of the plotline in how Piet recovers from his downfall in the family and begins his new life, so is deeply satisfying in other ways also. Yes, the ending does seem to happen a little too quickly – much like the final parts of his life in the family – but I gather there might just be a sequel in the offing one day so, if that’s true, I absolutely can’t wait.
In conclusion, this whole book simply bubbles over with life and the enjoyment of life in its various parts, and I have been thoroughly delighted by it all. More please.
The History of a Pleasure Seeker, Orion Books 2011, ISBN 978 0 7538 2842 7
Also available as an ebook
[Anne always admires anyone who can write good literary and life-enhancing erotic fiction and occasionally makes a stab at it herself. Her latest book is the fifth in the strangely popular gay ménage Delaneys series, The Delaneys At Home]