The Night Climbers

The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton is an alluring depiction of a lush and decadent side of upper class student life at Cambridge. Of course, that life comes at a price, and perhaps that's more the crux of our story. James is a first-year student at Tudor College, so concerned that he might fall into the "wrong" set of friends that he ends up isolating himself from everyone rather well before he's even realized it. But a chance at something different literally barges into his life, giving him the opportunity to make the acquaintance of a particularly fascinating group and he latches on to them with fierce tenacity. Such a fierce grip is doubly important, as these friends have a secret evening pastime of scaling the buildings of Cambridge, challenging themselves with dizzying heights and dangerous climbs. Of course, we're not simply climbing buildings in this world, where status matters so much and to fall would mean complete ruin.
The story jumps between the "present" day, where Jessica seeks out James after nearly a decade of silence, and James' first year at college where the bulk of the story takes place as we learn about the various ways this group is bound together. Francis is the charismatic center, financing their pleasures with his father's money and practically personifying hedonism. Jessica is beautiful and rather calculating in her chilly exterior, though she is devoted to Francis and his well-being. Lisa strikes a rather odd chord, with a schedule full of often shady business ventures, and Michael is nicknamed Falstaff (he thinks for his wit, though the others point to his size), clearly interested in the status of their group more than the friendships. While living as though money is no object, Francis is cut off from his father and more than anyone else, he needs a new source of income... which sets the friends on a dangerous and thrilling money-making venture.
There are a few books that will provoke the phrase, "this is perfect for you" from my friends, but undoubtedly, I got that reaction from people when I told them about the plot. Full of fascinating characters, discussions of art, and beautiful prose, this book was a delight. Sure, there were a few small rough patches (for instance, his characters in their older state were not quite as believable as they were in their youth), but one might point to the fact that Stourton was a mere twenty five when this was published. I'm certainly looking forward to Stourton's other work, because I know that the Cambridge setting was certainly a bewitching thing for me (being an Oxford alum, I might have spent more time imagining my time at Oxford than the surroundings of Cambridge) -- and it will certainly be interesting to see if Stourton can produce something just as compelling with different scenery. If so, then he can certainly count on my reading whatever he produces.

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