An Expensive Education, by Nick McDonell (The Text Publishing Company)

 Nick McDonell wrote his first novel, Twelve, when he was just seventeen years old. Or was it Seventeen, when he was twelve? Anyway, An Expensive Education is his third, and if the author picture supplied by his publisher is anything to go by, he’s not yet shaving regularly. A graduate of Harvard University, McDonell has set his new novel there, and his loving, uncritical portrayal of that university recalls Evelyn Waugh’s hymn to Oxford in Brideshead Revisited. There’s even a pair of stand-ins for Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder, the main characters of Waugh’s novel, in two permanently tuxedoed, permanently tanked students who stumble about Harvard’s campus trading witticisms that really aren’t that funny. Well, I never got the Sebastian-and-his-teddybear thing, either. In McDonell’s story, these characters have walk-on, light relief roles, which is a blessing.

Harvard is seen from the perspectives of professors and students, and one subplot concerns a young Somali student who, with his Scottish friend, applies for admission to one of Harvard’s exclusive fraternity clubs. That’s not terribly interesting, and if Harvard were all, this would be just another campus novel. It isn’t. McDonell’s book also follows the fortunes of a Harvard graduate, Michael Teak, an American intelligence operative in Somalia. Teak makes contact with an insurgency leader, Hatashil, at a remote village, just moments before the entire village is blown up. Who is responsible? Rumours, efficiently disseminated by the CIA, point to Hatashil himself.

Back at Harvard, Professor Susan Lowell suspects otherwise. She has just written a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Hatashil, and is now embroiled in academic and political controversy. Undergraduate students get hold of the story. In East Africa, Teak tries to uncover the truth – a search that leads him inexorably back to his masters in the US.

If it all sounds very plot-driven, it’s only because it is. The machinations of international espionage are expertly conveyed, and it’s good to see that, in fiction at least, American intelligence is not an oxymoron. But McDonell presents the conventional elements of the international thriller in unusually fine, spare, observant prose, with an interest in motivation and character. Even the least of the characters here – a waiter serving a drink, say – has an inner life that is given its moment, a sentence of attention. No one is wholly evil, no one is truly good: the characters are, for the most part, guided by flawed and weary idealism, and ready to put aside that idealism when it is pragmatic to do so. Alongside Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and John Le Carré come to mind.

The ending is a cliffhanger, and as this is a what-happens-next kind of book, I won’t divulge it here. No doubt a movie deal is already in the works, but I suspect that in the process the book will be stripped of its psychological complexity to meet the requirements of the action-adventure genre. This satisfying novel deserves better.


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Tim Tweets