Nicholas Shakespeare’s eighth novel, The Sandpit, unfolds in present-day Oxford amid political double-dealing and shady financial intrigue. John Dyer, a former Latin America newspaper correspondent, has settled in Oxford in order to write a cultural history of the Amazon and take stock of his broken marriage in Brazil. His half-Brazilian son, Leandro, attends a top Oxford prep school, the Phoenix, populated by the offspring of international hedge-funders and euro-fraudsters of one stripe or another. When Dyer was at the Phoenix in the 1960s, Shakespeare intimates, the boys were mostly British.
Leandro’s best friend, Samir, is Iranian. Together, Leandro and Samir fend off playground bullies and keep a distance from the Burberry-branded mothers in their white Range Rovers. Among the dubious Phoenix parents, Dyer’s sole friend is Rustum Marvar, Samir’s father, an Iranian nuclear physicist who has apparently fallen foul of the Khomeinist theocracy. Marvar works at Oxford University in a physics research unit, but the black-robed Ayatollahs are surely watching him. In pages of disturbing detail, Shakespeare describes the fate of Marvar’s wife at home in the Iranian capital of Tehran, where she is repeatedly tortured and raped. Islam’s aura of purity and principle apparently does not extend to Iran. (“Iran was supposed to be a country dedicated to God. It was not”, Marvar tells Dyer.)
Of course, contemporary Iran is not always the medieval theocracy portrayed in the west. Like the US, Iran has its own nuclear programme: Marvar may be involved in it. Alarmingly, he goes missing in Oxford one day along with his son after confiding to Dyer that he has at last fathomed the enigma of nuclear fusion. At a stroke, Dyer is cast adrift in an Oxford of rumours and bitchy hearsay. Was Marvar abducted by the Iranians? By the Israelis? Or the Saudis? Worse: could he have been a jihadi all along? (“Most jihadis have engineering backgrounds”, one Phoenix parent points out.) The thought is darkly off-putting to Dyer.
Dyer, a decent man, sets out to solve the mystery of Marvar’s disappearance; in John le Carré-style he finds himself suckered into “Deep State”, where non-governmental insiders from international banking and private arms corporations are privy to information denied to sectors of Whitehall and Westminster. To the Phoenix super-rich, Dyer is a pariah; the parents resent his busy-body investigations. Overnight, the Oxford prep-school with its innocent-looking sandpit and Dyer’s own sour-sweet memories of playground games with Airfix and Action Man, has transformed into a viper’s nest.
Manifestly, le Carré has worked his way into Shakespeare’s imagination, and left fingerprints on this literary thriller. In spite of the odd clunky sentence (“He was having to unthaw memories that he had put into cold storage”), The Sandpit remains a grimly absorbing entertainment, that opens a window onto the murky world of international nuclear policy and espionage amorality.
The Sandpit by Nicholas Shakespeare (Harvill Secker, £16.99), buy it here.