There’s a curiously old-fashioned feel to Sebastian Hampson’s debut. It’s about a naïve gauche young man about to start his art history studies at the Sorbonne and his encounter with an older, sophisticated woman who decides to make something of him. The press release suggests Brief Encounter and there’s certainly a cinematic feel about Hampson’s descriptions of Biarritz and Paris but while it begins as a bright, slightly comic romp things take a darker turn edging more towards Les Liaisons Dangereuses territory, de Laclos’s masterly eighteenth century classic novel.
Lawrence, our twenty-year-old narrator, is making his way back to Paris after meeting his girlfriend in Madrid. He muses on their relationship, unable to understand quite why they haven’t yet slept together, comparing himself with his altogether more worldly flatmate with whom he went to school back in New Zealand. Set to change trains in a small Basque town he finds that the French railways have been hit by a strike. There are no free seats on the only two trains to Paris over the weekend. While debating with himself what to do he spies a glamorous, beautifully turned out woman, clearly considerably older than him. They fall into conversation and almost against his will, Lawrence finds himself on a jaunt to Biarritz, installed in a luxurious hotel with Élodie who spends much of her time cajoling him about his manners, his clothes, his girlfriend and his dullness while introducing him to what she sees as the finer side of life. An adventure has begun.
Lawrence’s slightly pompous, gaucheness is particularly well drawn. His eagerness to show off his knowledge of art history, frequently dropping in references to paintings and architecture, nicely awkward, but what kept my interest in this novel was the relationship between the two main protagonists. Just what is Élodie up to? Who is she and how does she manage to live on champagne and foie gras without any visible means of support? What’s her relationship with the enjoyably sleazy Ed Selvin? What is she hoping to get out of this seemingly Trilby/Svengali relationship with Lawrence? Is she quite what she seems? Some, although not all, of these questions are answered but that’s not entirely the point. The novel is as much about the way in which Lawrence is changed by his encounter and what it means for his future life. It’s an interesting spin on the conventional older man/younger woman dynamic and I wondered how I would have felt if the genders had been reversed. An enjoyable novel, then, and one which turned out to be more thought-provoking than I’d expected. I’ll look forward to seeing what Hampson does next.