Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Meet Jeffrey Dumas!

A Prisoner of Birth
By Jeffrey Archer
(St. Martin's Press, March 2008, ISBN-13: 9780312379292, 512pp)

There was lot of expectations from Jeffrey Archer's latest pot-boiler, the first since he was released from prison, especially when the word prisoner was in the title. But, once you finish reading the book, you will be tempted to rename 'A Prisoner of Birth' to 'A Prisoner of Monte Cristo,' such is the influence of 'The Count of Monte Cristo' in Archer's narrative. The lead character, Danny Cartwright, himself mentions the protagonist of Dumas' revenge romance, Edmond Dantes, at least three times, even comparing himself with the wronged hero, Dantes, who returns a wealthy man with a different identity to seek vengeance on those who wronged him.
Talking about literary influences, Archer has quite a few favourites, ranging from Dickens' 'The Bleak House' to 'The Importance of Being Ernest' to 'Twelfth Night,' the latter two dealing with mistaken identities, a major theme in the current novel. Not to mention Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the story of a thief finding his redemption.
Looks like while serving the prison term, Archer used the library services in the prison to revisit old classics, very much like one of the major characters in the novel, Nick. (Again, Nick is the Father Faria figure here, tutoring Danny everything, and at the end, even giving his identity) In fact, there are occasions when Nick sounds like Archer mouthpiece, often saying, "avoid clichés." Yet, Archer, the novelist, does nothing but to use clichés, one after another till the very end. He has his moments of twists, but they are too mild to shock you and linger on. Even the two murders that happen in the first part of the novel (Bernie and Nick) are too very mild.
Archer has very good experience of prison life. He wrote his three volume prison autobiography, 'Belmarsh: Hell,' 'Wayland: Purgatory' and 'North Sea Camp: Heaven.' Yet, the ruthlessness of the prison life is not utilised enough in the novel, except for the drug trade. We expected to read something like ‘Shawshank Redemption’ at the least. But, 'A Prisoner of Birth' makes Shawshank a far superior work.
Now, the story: Danny Cartwright is a garage-hand, who proposes his best friend's sister and his boss's daughter Beth. As the two friends, Danny and Bernie, and Beth go to an East End London pub to celebrate the engagement (and she is pregnant, unlike Mercedes, that is), they get involved with four upmarket guys, who call themselves Musketeers, (Dumas hangover, one for all and all for one!!!). In the ensuing brawl, Bernie is killed by one of the Oxford peppies, Spencer Craig, who also happens to be a barrister. Then, Mr Barrister predictably and calculatedly puts the blame on Danny boy.
This was the prologue. The rest of the book is divided into four parts, as follows:
The Trial: There are whole series of courtroom scenes. Golden-hearted lawyers vs ruthless ones. But you miss sequences like ‘A Few Good Men’ (that's the only court room drama I remember right now. And, I am not even thinking about ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’). The exchanges are tepid. The schemings poor, and the suspense nil. You know, Danny is going to prison, no matter what. The title says so.
Prison: This is the best part of the novel, where immediately after coming to jail, Danny boy meets lot of goons with hearts of gold (cliché), a teacher to make illiterate Danny a civilised person (Nick, cliché), a big man with a kind heart (Al, cliché), a mindless villain (cliché). We learn that Nick is a 'Sir', moneyed, and has strong facial/physical resemblance with Danny (cliché; 'The Prince and The Pau-per,' though Archer forgets to mention it), and like in Dumas' novel, the teacher dies and disciple takes over the teacher's persona.
The next chapter is Revenge: No prize for guessing what happens. Some very obvious cat-and-mouse games, some new enemies, and some new friends...
Then Redemption. Danny finds his place in the world.
The biggest problem of the novel is its lack of suspense, if anything else. The next culprit is the host of stock characters. Nothing is new or unknown here. Danny is well etched; but the way he moves from one improbability to another is trifle exhausting to digest at one go.
Yes. There are some moving scenes, especially after Danny is free, and trying to deal with his Sir Nicholas persona, and the habits of being a jailbird. But that's not enough to hold your attention.
No argument that ‘A Prisoner of Birth’ is a best-seller, a good pot-boiler. But we expected more from Archer than just a modern rehash of Alexander Dumas.

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