(The dock area of Bristol, United Kingdom)
How did I go years without reading a Jeffrey Archer novel? Periodically, friends would recommend his work, but it was not until I listened to a recent NPR interview with Archer that my interest was piqued. The selection I chose was ONLY TIME WILL TELL the first installment of the CLIFTON CHRONICLES and it was a revelation.
Archer has written a novel involving a series of relationships told through the voices of a number of characters. Set in England from the end of World War I through the outbreak of World War II it involves two families; the Clifton’s, lower class and poor, the Barrington’s, upper class and rich. Their interactions are based on a past history brought forward setting the tone and the course of the storyline. Archer’s yarn is told through the differing perspectives of Maisie Clifton, a widow whose son has the great gift of voice, but the family is entrenched in poverty. Hugo Barrington, a man whose one night fling has brought his hopes for his own family to a crisis despite their wealth. Old Jack Tar, a man who has not gotten over his experience in the Boer War who knows everyone’s secrets and lives in a railroad car on Barrington property. Giles Barrington, Hugo’s heir. Emma Barrington, Giles’ sister who falls in love with his best friend. Finally, Harry Clifton, whose hard work leads him to Oxford, but also to an unusual dilemma.
Archer does an accurate job presenting the class system that dominates English society. The snobbery and deceit of the English upper class is on full display as characters interact driving the actions of a number of individuals. Archer takes the reader through the experience of attending an English boarding school and the intense competition to gain entrance to premier schools like Eton and Oxford. The plight of English labor is explored in detail concentrating on the docks of Bristol, England.
The death of Arthur Clifton, Maisie’s husband forms the backstory of the novel. Wounded in World War I Arthur would die a few years later. The truth about his death is hidden because it could upend Hugo Barrington’s life plan and will have grave implications for his children. Only a few people know the truth, and it is kept from Maisie’s son, Harry. It seems that the Barrington Shipyard experiences an accident where Arthur, one of their workers is accidentally welded inside one of the companies ships where he perishes. Archer has the knack of bringing two parallel stories told by separate characters that eventually come together creating an intense drama.
The story is full of anger and lies, but also the determination of a mother to allow her son to maximize his amazing talent despite the family’s poverty. Archer writes as if he is creating a puzzle, and as the story unfolds the pieces seem to fit perfectly. Each of the major characters has their own story that explains their actions. For example, Old Jack Tar is really Captain Jack Tarrant who earned the Victoria Cross for saving over twenty of his compatriots during the Boer War, but he believes that he is responsible for the death of eleven Boer civilians. His guilt controls his life and enforces a self-inflicted prison which dominates a good part of his behavior which includes developing a wonderful relationship with Harry Clifton from the time the boy was five years old. He will become his mentor and greatly influence his life.
Hugo Barrington represents the seamier side of English society as he employs detectives, pays off witnesses, frames people who are then imprisoned and in general behaves like the spoiled “bastard” that he is. He tries to control his family and the family Shipyard through intimidation and threats. Hugo and other individuals reflect Archer’s ability to develop the personalities of his characters in a thoughtful and meaningful way. As one reads on you feel that you know these people intimately and become emotionally entangled in their lives.
Archer possesses an excellent command of English history and integrates historical personalities like Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill along with important events leading to World War II very nicely. After reading ONLY TIME WILL TELL I feel as if I have begun a journey with the Clifton’s and since there are six other volumes in the CLIFTON CHRONICLES, I have a great deal of reading pleasure on the horizon particularly since Harry Clifton made a rather unusual decision as the novel comes to an end.