In his debut novel, Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall (1991), Bartlett explored contemporary gay themes in a shadowy fable-like setting. Here, the background is richly specific—London in the 1920s and '50s—and the subject, treated with a moody obsessiveness reminiscent of Ruth Rendell (in her Barbara Vine mode), is the repression and secrecy then intrinsic to most homosexual lives. The narrator is Mr. Page, a middle-aged clerk who, alone in his tiny flat on Christmas Eve, 1956 (when arrests for sodomy are filling the headlines), tries to capture on paper, in precise detail, the turning point of his life: his encounter with Clive Vivian during the winter of 1924. The two 20-year-olds meet as strangers on Jermyn Street, where shabby Page, a junior employee at Selfridge's, visits the Turkish baths. Well-dressed Clive is the heir to a famous mansion on Brooke Street, but the two men look remarkably alike and immediately, silently, recognize their shared ``situation.'' The subject is never discussed; Page comes to the mansion for a party, then tea, only to find the great house uncared-for and Clive alternately friendly, rude, mysterious. Finally, after Clive appears to have a breakdown of sorts at his 21st-birthday dinner, Page returns to the house once more—and realizes, when he catches a glimpse of Clive and his young blond servant, that Clive is about to choose passion and honesty over society's approval. Despite a tone and pace that suggest suspense, Page's churning reminiscences don't build up to a genuine surprise or revelation; the novel fizzles out a bit as its rather didactic shape becomes apparent. But Bartlett's storytelling gifts are amply confirmed here—thanks to expertly voiced narration (Page's prim restraint giving way to occasional bursts of sarcasm or erotic fantasy) and to a masterly evocation of time and place, with the house on Brooke Street an effective symbol of Victorian values in disarray.
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