Book review: History of a Pleasure Seeker

2011-06-15 00:00

WITH this novel, Richard Mason moves in a new direction. His last book, The Lighted Rooms , was a complex piece of writing in a more literary genre, moving between different times, and featuring two very different characters. But now he has produced a picaresque rake’s progress, an erotic romp set mainly in 1907 Amsterdam, though by the time we reach “To Be Continued” on the final page, the rake is enjoying himself in the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.

The amoral, lively hero is Piet Barol, beautiful to look at, overwhelmingly ambitious to escape poverty and clever enough to use his advantages to get what he wants. He lands a job as tutor to a strange, obsessive-compulsive, agoraphobic child, the only son of a wealthy Amsterdam family. In the uneasy space between the household staff and the rest of the family, Piet has plenty of targets for his charm, used in various different ways.

He prefers to gravitate upstairs, towards the kindly father whose odd religious impulses have made him take a vow of chastity, the inevitably sex-starved mother and the two lively daughters. But he also has a friend in Didier, the footman, who has fallen in love with him.

It is to Mason’s credit that he manages to keep the reader entertained — endless sex scenes can all too easily become pornographically gross or soporifically boring. Here Piet’s mind games and seductions are often extremely funny and always keep the reader on edge lest he goes that little bit too far and gets caught out. I am not the first reviewer to find myself thinking of George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman, but I have to say, Mason and Piet Barol have the lighter touch.

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