Who can resist a wunderkind? Richard Mason is 20 years old, and he has already published a novel. What more need be said? In this case, a great deal. Youthful prodigy is the least of the matter with regard to The Drowning People. This first novel, by a young Oxford student who began writing it when he was 18, is striking in its wisdom and thoughtful beyond its author's years. It would be a worthwhile addition to any writer's body of work—for a teenager emeritus, it's a stunner.

The story of James Farrell is, he admits, one of a naif loose in a world that does not suffer innocents gladly. A budding concert violinist, he falls in love at 22 with self-dramatizing Ella Harcourt, an heiress of the English aristocracy, who, he believes, needs his help to escape the stultifying influences of her privileged life. Unwilling to delve below the surface of his dream of love, in a moment of weakness he goes along with a foolish demand of Ella's that results in tragedy for his accompanist and best friend, Eric de Vaugirard. The resulting guilt isolates him from his love for several years. When he and Ella come together again, a new player has arrived front and center, Sarah Harcourt, Ella's cousin, her carbon copy in looks, but as different from Ella as ice is from warm water. Murder ensues, so heinous that James must find shelter in a life of serenity, order, and security as obsessive as his earlier lives. Only at 70 does he discover the pervasiveness of the evil touching his own life, and take a shocking step to make things right. He kills his wife. That act is the start of his story, which is told in the form of a book-long recollection full of what ifs and if onlys (a few too many perhaps). Like ancient mountains, the jagged enthusiasm of youth is palpably worn down by the flow of reminiscing old age, as James arrives at a truer understanding of his experience as one of the drowning people who succumb to the flood of life itself.

It's a remarkable achievement for so young a writer, and the kind of book that makes you agree with Logan Pearsall Smith, who said, "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading."

Maude McDaniel is a freelance writer in Cumberland, Maryland.

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