Twilight on the lawn

The Liquidator by Ferdinand Mount, Heinemann, pounds 14.99 Ferdinand Mount's new novel is utterly English and infused with a sense of faded splendour

Judging from the recent increases in Ferdinand Mount's output, the role of editor of the Times Literary Supplement - Mount's day job since 1991 - can't be unduly exacting. At any rate, an author who in the first quarter century of his career managed a paltry four novels, has since 1992 risen to the lightning extravagance of three in as many years. Thematically, Mount's books follow no set pattern - The Man Who Rode Ampersand (1975), for instance, is a portrait of a gentleman rider based on the author's own father, while Umbrella (1994) is a historical number on the life of Lord Aberdeen. Drawing them together, perhaps, is a connoisseur's eye for musty English decline, and it is significant that the sequence in which his new novel reposes is now billed as A Chronicle of English Twilight.

Twilight features largely in The Liquidator, which opens in a quintessential Mount setting: a timewarped suburban tennis club, its habitues grimly conscious that both premises and membership will end up by having seen better days. Here, on still-dappled lawns, assembles a varied cast: Gus, the wraith-like narrator; Tony and Josie, the "golden couple" on whom the story turns; and its grand panjandrum, Josie's father, a rapacious insolvency accountant named Geoffrey Pagan-Jones. Desperately emulous of Tony's dapper ways and presumed destinies (he seems booked to take on Pagan-Jones's lucrative insolvency practice as well as his daughter), Gus is pulled up short when the relationship breaks apart and Pagan-Jones turns nasty. Tony, at first relegated to "disposals" at the extremity of the North Circular, is subsequently thrown out of the firm altogether. Tracked down to an East Coast repertory company and a starring role in a production called Up Lazarus, then to an Essex terrace, his star seems irrevocably on the wane.

The seeds of Tony's renaissance, it transpires, lie 80 years and several thousand miles away in the form of a turn-of-the-century English missionary sent out to proselytise in the Levant. Beatha, who converts and marries a Maronite priest, is a convincing creation, her family background sketched in a few bright threads of language and scene. The disappointments of her married life are borne without complaint when her husband, brought to England and ordained into the Anglican church, reveals himself as a womanising arriviste. There is a lucrative inheritance, though, and two generations later his grandson can return to the Middle East to establish himself as a sort of feudal warlord. At which point fate, masquerading as ancient tribal enmity, steps in once more and the newly-widowed Josie, who took the precaution of passing her accountancy exams all those years ago, comes back to London in search of her own heritage.

Full of knowing resonances, lurking symbols (Mary Magdalen, showers of gold) and expert twists, The Liquidator specialises in precise linguistic effects. At one point, Gus eats a slice of apple pie which is like "a cross-section of gash breccia in a geology book". At heart, though, the book is another of Mount's chiaroscuros from the post-Imperial twilight, infused with a sense of faded splendour, of the modern world somehow failing to satisfy the yearnings of the disillusioned young people wandering in its shade.

Not everything convinces - the narrative device in which Gus collects his data from a series of raconteurs is rather stagey, and the synchronicity with which minor characters weave in and out of the text is too blatant. An accountant, too, might jib at some of the professional detail, in particular a reference to Ernst & Young (whose ampersand Mount curiously omits) several years before the firm was actually created. What remains, despite the Powellesque schematics and the obvious contrivance, is an impression of artlessness. There is a kind of deliberate amateurism in the way Mount writes (or rather a concealed professionalism) that is as English as his material, as quite as welcome.

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