After 150 or so pages of preamble, Marvar eventually disappears, having handed Dyer the secrets of his research, but he should have been gone by page 20 or 30. There are descriptions of Oxford streets, inner monologues and — the now standard, among bien pensant authors — sideswipes about President Trump and Brexit voters. There is very little action, although the darker inner workings of the British state are neatly shown and the pace picks up later in the book.
A joy to read, the novel reflects John le Carré’s genre-stretching influence on every page: the boys’ school setting, the mixture of social comedy and Hitchcockian shenanigans, the astute, sophisticated prose, the central philosophical dilemma, and the exploration of what it means to be English in a globalised world.
However, we are, I think, intended to consider Dyer’s predicament in existential terms: at one point he refers to the physicist as ‘an illness who had come in through the cracks, to nest’ — in other words as a sort of external visitor embodying Dyer’s own problems and his dissatisfaction with the current state of the world.
On this level, The Sandpit works very well, and there is much else to enjoy. It is exceptionally well written, for a start, and it also expanded my vocabulary (maculate? Delible? Bloviated?). And Nicholas Shakespeare is so lyrical about fishing that it almost made me want to take angling lessons.
But the novel is trailed as ‘a remarkable contemporary thriller’— by William Boyd, no less. When it comes down to it, a thriller, even a literary one, really ought to thrill. This one doesn’t.
It satisfies the Buchan criterion: that improbable events should remain within the realm of the possible. The thread of credibility may be stretched but is never snapped. The writer of this kind of novel walks a delicate line and it’s often the case that interest which must depend on persuasiveness ebbs as the action quickens. This doesn’t happen here, partly because the sense of place is so strong, partly because everyday life goes on – Leandro has to do his homework, shopping has to be done, meals eaten – and partly because Shakespeare realizes the importance of a change of tempo.
There are more than a few hints of Graham Greene and John le Carré here – the hero as a middle-class, middle-aged man who doesn’t quite fit into his milieu is a somewhat overworn type – and Oxford’s dreaming spires make for a rather too familiar backdrop. But in its exploration of how individual actions can have huge and unexpected ramifications, The Sandpit is an enthralling read. Although a loose sequel to The Dancer Upstairs, it has more in common with Shakespeare’s 2004 novel, Snowleg, a story of love and loss set behind the Iron Curtain. In both, the security services provide a sinister presence in the lives of the protagonists. Nothing can be private – every move, act of love and friendship becomes data to be analysed and fought over. Nobody can be trusted. As in Shakespeare’s previous novels, the theme of how ordinary individuals negotiate the pressures brought down on them by extraordinary events generates superb drama.
There are lovely reminiscences on South America, although Shakespeare doesn’t rate his readers’ foreign-affairs knowledge, giving some clunky exposition. And for an insistently contemporary novel, it can feel dated – sometimes sweetly, with phrases like “surfing the internet” and an 11-year-old saying “bosom”; sometimes not, such as a thin man “disappearing on himself like an anorexic girl”.