The Harlequin’s Son

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Sarah Saranson was born into a wealthy British family, but as a child of the 1960’s she vowed to renounce everything associated with rank and privilege. To escape her disapproving parents she accepted a marriage proposal from a stuffy, well-to-do army officer, even though it was obvious that life with him would be as confining as life at home. Geoffrey, however, was soon sent on a tour of duty in Northern Ireland, and Sarah began an illicit affair with an intellectual drifter straight out of a D.H. Lawrence novel, encouraged by her Tante Louise, a sworn enemy of British propriety. When Sarah learned that she was pregnant, her husband and her lover both deserted her.

Thirteen years later, Sarah’s son Alexander, who has been reared primarily by his grandparents, is enrolled in an upper-crust male boarding school. Amhurst College, a hotbed of neurosis and sexual perversion, is organized into a strictly defined caste system based on the social standing of the boys’ fathers. Until Alexander is able to discover his father’s true identity, he will have no identity of his own.

Incessant questioning of his mother and Tante Louise turns up a variety of tantalizing false leads. With each “clue,” Alexander discovers in himself previously unknown character traits. He imagines himself a born actor, a secret agent, a soldier, a cabinet minister, a shrewd industrialist. Then his investigation uncovers a photograph of his mother’s long-lost lover: A man dressed in a ridiculous harlequin’s costume. Alexander recognizes the harlequin as one of the inmates at a nearby lunatic asylum, and from then on he is unable to ignore unmistakable signs of insanity in himself. With his father’s advice and the treacherous assistance of his supposedly retarded half-sister, Alexander manages to establish his identity once and for all.

American audiences, accustomed to the works of Stephen King and Peter Straub, may not consider this a genuine horror novel, in spite of the dust jacket’s claims. Nevertheless, THE HARLEQUIN’S SON is a well-written and cleverly constructed tale that successfully combines dry British humor and Hitchcockian suspense, and it should provide satisfying chills on warm summer nights.