The prologue of this book begins with one of the most memorable first lines of any book: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. It's an opening line which perfectly invokes the tone of this book: nostalgic, reflective and contemplative. It was this tone, and the reflective and analytical way in which the story was narrated, which made the book so exceptional, and so enjoyable to read. It felt sombre and restrained, as the narrator looked back with a lifetime's accumulated wisdom on the experiences of his youth, and the defining moment of his life: the point at which his dismal path was inadvertently chosen. The tone was almost oppressive; I could feel it lulling me into a similar meditative state, with its random, apposite observations on life diverting me into reveries of my own. It was as if the experience of reading the book was something quite apart from the story itself. To describe this book as spell-binding is no cliché.
Leo Colston is a sixty-ish year old man with many regrets: emotionally restrained, he is aware that he has run away from life, and passed time looking backwards into the past. He comes across a box of treasures from his childhood, prime among them a gold-edged diary. He works the lock, and as it springs open, long-buried memories are unimprisoned. This much of the story is revealed in the prologue, which along with the epilogue is set in the novel's present. The book itself is the story of what is remembered. It is set in the past, in the year 1900, as Leo approaches his 13th birthday.
The events unfold as they are viewed by the young Leo, innocent and unknowing, easily manipulated, blind to the importance and significance of the events in which he is caught up, but also inclined to over-estimate his own importance. His only moral code is that of the schoolboy; it is unquestioned, but it is not all-encompassing. He is unequipped to deal with the role assigned him, the role of the go-between. In a summer spent at Brandham Hall, the home of his friend Marcus Maudsley, he envisions himself as Mercury the messenger, with the adults as Gods. His approaching adulthood is conceived of as a Golden Age, confounded with the coming century.
Leo is not in the same class as the Maudsleys. Snobbery becomes a key theme of the book; the story deals with the implications of this disparity in wealth, the unattractive general snobbishness of some of the Maudsleys, and the distinction between Hall and village. There are comic elements in this snobbery; especially in regard to Marcus, in which it takes the form of a set of random and baffling rules as to what is acceptable and what is not. But there is also tragedy, for Marcus' sister Marion is involved in a clandestine affair with the tenant farmer Ted Burgess, and Leo is co-opted as go-between, passing messages between the lovers. Proud of his role to begin with, he comes to sense its danger, and as the summer progresses and the heat intensifies, he looks for a way to escape the role believing only he can prevent disaster.
The narration is really a post-mortem of these events by the older Leo, recalling his innocence and bringing an adult perspective to re-evaluate the events of the past. It is a book about the transition from childhood to adulthood, and about the loss of innocence. And the crippling and lifelong effects that this loss brings.