This elegantly written novel is about the tragic sacrifice of devotion and the ensuing complications of a friendship. Like a Shakespearian tragedy, The Night Climbers recounts events that are irrevocably set in motion and finally roll to a halt a decade later in the snowy streets of suburban London and Cambridge.
Central to the story is wealthy lawyer James Walker and his reflections on his life at the prestigious Oxbridge College in Cambridge. Raised in the school of hard knocks in the decidedly middle-class Hoxton and coming from a poor social vantage point, James is a trifle awed at having the opportunity to attend such a prestigious school.
Cut off almost completely from his peers and not really knowing whom to approach, James welcomes the arrival to his room one night of fellow student Michael Findlay, who erupts into his life and introduces him to a group of
rich, glamorous friends called the Tudor Night Climbers, who spend most of their free time climbing onto rooftops and are intent to seek out pleasure wherever they can find it.
Headed by hedonistic Francis Manley, almost at once the impressionable and easily influenced James becomes enrapt with the Night Climbers and awed by Francis' tales of his life in Zimbabwe and his aristocratic pretensions, particularly with that of his father Lord Soulford, who is currently trying for nomination as the local Conservative candidate.
Soon enough, life for James takes on the seductive glow of possibility and the promise of fulfillment, with Francis proving to be his link into the shadowy and glamorous world of fox-hunting afternoons, clandestine boxing matches, and drug-fuelled parties. To James, Francis is "a fighter," the embodiment of all that James wishes he could be.
He's also someone who has been raised all his life in the midst of a fortune the likes of which James has only encountered in books and glossy magazines.
James' friendship with Francis develops and almost borders on homoerotic as he becomes ever more carried away with "the joy of total superiority."
He also falls under the spell of beautiful Jessica Katz, who becomes James' partner in crime and also a co-protector for the reckless and out-of-control Francis, who ever steadily begins to fall apart before them.
As James climbs with this group amongst the spires and turrets of Oxbridge College with Cambridge bathed in a watery winter sunshine, he eventually sees Francis for who he really is: a conflicted young man who makes you want to suspend disbelief so you can drink more of his magic, while also attempting to fool you with his financial and romantic intrigues.
Francis has been earning most of his money from his fighting, but he spends it and
is always in trouble with bookies and a whole host of creditors. When his father threatens to cut off his inheritance, rather than drag his friends through the depression and despair of having no more money, he hatches a get-rich-quick scheme involving a forged Picasso. When James and Jessica conspire to help their hero pursue his outlandish proposal, they become embroiled in theft, tax evasion, and the inevitable intimations of blackmail.
The narrative unfolds in the first person with James looking back on all of these events, releasing both his memories of Francis and his longings to probe once more the volatile passions that surged beneath Francis's façade. When Francis's true nature begins to protrude, a hard seam of self-destruction starts to assert itself that endures long after the excitement and zest through which it had run has worn away.
The Night Climbers is about the bonds of friendship, the price of being misunderstood, and the feelings of a vulnerable young man who tries to live vicariously, even when he's in danger of collapsing into a quagmire of ethical uncertainty. Much of James's later life is shaped by the impressions that he once formed of his best friend.
In the end, even Jessica realizes that she has invested too much of herself in the risky enterprise of Francis.
Ivo Stourton's characters are mostly self-absorbed, habitually unsympathetic, and not that particularly likable, but the author's beautifully measured writing style and his willingness to portray the seamier, more decadent side of upper-class college life provides much to admire in this morally ambiguous and quite suspenseful first novel.