This first book in Jeffery Archer’s Clifton Chronicles is a big fat serving of good old fashioned brain twinkies. A sweeping tale set in Bristol, it essentially begins with Harry Clifton’s birth in 1919. When he is a baby his father, a dock worker at Barrington’s Shipyards, disappears and is presumed dead. Only this mystery is kept from young Harry and he is told that his father died in the Great War. He and his mother Maisie have a hard scrabble life, constantly under the thumb of his abusive uncle Stan (ha-I inadvertently typed “Satan” there). When it looks like he will grow up to be just another ne’er do well dock worker, a headmaster and Old Jack Tar, who lives in an abandoned train car in the yards at Barrington’s, take interest in him and help him get into St. Bede’s, where he excels in English and is a treble soloist in the prestigious church choir. There he meets young Giles Barrington (yes, those Barrington’s) and Algernon Deakins, who are to become his lifelong friends.
Like any potboiler worth its salt, this book has uncertain and potentially devastating paternity (I get that England is an island but why do so many people fall in love with their half-siblings?), intrigue, class struggle, and the advent of WWII . The book regularly switches perspective amongst the main characters—when there is a family tree in the flyleaf of the book you know you’ve got a big cast of characters to keep track of- and that seems to keep the plot humming along at a fast enough clip. Some of the writing is a little over blown and there are plot holes you can drive a Sherman tank through, but I’m not looking for greatness here. Just a little literary junk food.