Novel of the week

The Drowning People

Richard Mason <em>Michael Joseph, 333pp, £10</em>

Richard Mason is the 21-year-old Oxford student who became newsworthy after receiving life- transforming advances for this, his first novel - £200,000 from Penguin, $800,000 from US publishers Warners and an unspecified fortune for the film rights. A year later, and three years after he started writing his book, Mason's moment of truth has arrived. Does The Drowning People justify the money? Perhaps it is more than coincidence that it is published on 1 April.

The novel is a confession narrated by James Farrell, a 70 year old who has just murdered his wife, Sarah. The story returns to their early twenties, when James was a promising violinist ("My recording of the Mendelssohn E minor ranks with the best; and such an achievement carries with it a certain responsibility"), and fell in love with Sarah's cousin, the aristocratic Ella Harcourt. Ella was his first love and he recalls how "together we detonated all history and watched, exhilarated, as worlds of experience and possibility opened in its place and expanded with the frantic energy of romantic fusion". This, incidentally, is by no means the purplest of his prose.

Having confessed on page one, the narrator attempts to hold our interest for the next couple of hundred pages by slowly revealing why he killed his wife. It is usually bad form to give away the ending of a novel, but on this occasion, as a public service, I will. Sarah, it turns out, framed her cousin Ella for murder in order to prevent Ella from inheriting Sarah's beloved Seton Castle. When James discovers this, 45 years later, well, "the tears came; and I sobbed with the ugly retchings of a man no longer used to them". It is difficult to believe it took James, for all his self-professed brilliance, 45 years to work this out, and that Sarah, herself an accomplished murderer, did not finish him off before his realisation dawned. It would have taken a saint not to have tired of his pompous ruminations after a few minutes.

For one so young, Richard Mason takes himself very seriously. Perhaps this is why he cannot make do with a 20-something narrator, but speaks with the assumed authority of old age. Unfortunately, even the most self-indulgent of pensioners could not have come out with endless dirges such as: "I need no reminding of my career; or of how much I came to dislike adulation when I received it." The press release accompanying the novel calls this writing "lyrical", which perhaps refers to Mason's extraordinary abuse of the semi-colon; there is barely a paragraph without one.

Perhaps we are being too hard on Richard Mason, who above all comes across as pretentious and self-regarding: a perfectly normal adolescent with literary aspirations, in fact.Which raises the question as to why on earth his book earned so much money before publication, let alone why it was published in the first place. A clever structure is not enough. The real answer, as so often these days, is that it all comes down to marketing. "Publicity is about the writer, not the book," says James Hampton, Mason's publicist. He is right. Publishers now concentrate on selling an image of a young and successful writer rather than well-written books. Hampton says he is overjoyed that Mason "looks like a cross between Rupert Everett and Hugh Grant", a gift to a publicist, as is "that Old Etonian glamour". Despite being a handsomely produced hardback, The Drowning People is on sale at £10. The theory behind this must be that it makes it affordable for impressionable, love-struck, swooning teenage Benenden girls.

To read this book is, in the end, depressing because it destroys any faith you might once have had in the publishing business. You are left wondering who, if anyone, is in charge of these huge, voracious conglomerates. The press release describes Mason's prose as "heart-rending". It is: but not in the way that they mean.

Sophia Hesselgren works on the "Times" diary