A PRISONER OF BIRTH by Jeffrey Archer (St. Martin’s), 501 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NN
Literary lord Jeffrey Archer has come out with another blockbuster novel to add to his supersized reputation.
I don’t get what all the fuss is about. There’s no denying Archer is a good storyteller, which is just as well since the book packs a whopping 501 pages. But while A Prisoner Of Birth is an entertaining enough read, nothing lifts it above the ordinary.
It’s your basic Pygmalion story: young working-class East Londoner, wrongly accused of murdering his best friend, goes to prison, where he’s taken under the wing of his aristocratic cellmate and turned into upper-class material – all the better to get the revenge he seeks.
There are a few smart twists and turns; and it’s no surprise that good outwits evil in the end.
Archer himself was incarcerated for two years for perjury, so it’s not as if he lacks perspective on prison life. But his cast of stock characters – the professor, the faithful retainer, the corrupt old boys – could be playing the West End.
I’m not the first to criticize Archer for being full of himself, but his patronizing “let me educate you” attitude is annoying. He pokes away at the reader with a zealot’s finger: see how our penal system fails; look at the injustices in Britain’s class structure. Yes, Sir Jeffrey, we know.
While we may all of us, as one of the characters puts forth, suffer from being prisoners of birth, the novel suffers from an arrogance that presumes Archer is the only one aware of this. Told from a different vantage point, someone closer to the ground, we’d have another, much better story.