An eloquent comic picture of Stately Old England in precipitous economic and moral decline—a picture that emerges gradually from the episodic momentum of this ambitious novel by the British author (and former TLS editor) best known here for his colorful historical pastiche Jem (and Sam) (1999).
Fairness is the fifth and concluding volume of Mount’s sequence A Chronicle of Modern Twilight, a fictional social history 25 years in the making, and inevitably reminiscent of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Its principal figures are (viewpoint character) Aldous “Gus” Cotton and Helen Hardress, recent university graduates who meet in the early 1960s at Deauville on the Normandy coast, where both are tutoring and nannying wealthy families’ overprivileged brats. Helen’s passionate sense of “fairness” (by which she means the immediate obliteration of class and other artificial distinctions) turns her into a kind of left-wing Madonna who travels the globe in a lifelong attempt to improve its populace—working for a disreputable South African mining company (and later participating in the British miners’ strike of 1973), then as a crusading social worker hunting down an elusive pedophile, among other aggressively worthy incarnations. Meanwhile, Gus (an observer-narrator reminiscent as much of Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway as of Powell’s Nicholas Jenkins) loves Helen unrequitedly, as she flits in and out of his life during a turbulent 40-year period. Mount also surrounds the impressionable, suggestible Gus with a rich gallery of self-absorbed eccentrics (most reappearing from the series’ earlier novels), including fast-talking Gerald Moonman, editor of the satirical magazine Frag, and his Babbitt-like brother Bobs (who succeeds, infuriatingly enough, where Gus fails); monomaniacal Dr. Maintenon-Smith (“the Napoleon of asthma”); and American mogul Dodo Wilmot, a frighteningly Falstaffian monster of consumer culture and exuberant vulgarity.
Fairness rambles, but hits most of its targets dead-on. One wishes the entire Chronicle were available here, and suspects this appealingly shaggy tale may look even better when read in its rightful context.