Only Time Will Tell by Jeffrey Archer is the first in a continuing saga about a young man, Harry Clifton, whose life, like a ball of string, ravels out from one point at a very early age. He was told his father, a dock worker in Bristol whom he never knew, was killed in the war to end all wars. World War I. And also at a very early age, he suspects that story is not true. And from the docks and shanties of the poor, to the halls of scholarship at the most exclusive boys’ schools, the patronymic nature of this mystery haunts the youth and casts a pall upon a natural and unforeseen talent, and his astonishing academic achievements.
The story of the young Harry Clifton and his devastatingly poor family, is set against the backdrop of the ravages of The Great World War, and whispers of world turmoil yet to come. As the winds of a second conflict blow from a zephyr to a gale, England dithers. School boys talk excitedly of trading their academic apparel and pens for military uniforms and weapons. Who will stay and who will go? And among all these dominant questions is the one Harry Clifton must find an answer — who is his father? And why is one wealthy man willing to destroy everything in his path to keep that answer buried.
Only Time Will Tell is written in a very unusual and unique style, moving from a simple first person narrative to a third person perspective, but always letting the reader know who is telling the story and the time frame in which his narrative is set. Every character — both good and bad — is given his say. Time frames vary as much as the characters, going back to a period already told from one perspective, to be related again from an entirely different point of view.
Characters are well-fleshed, starting with the protagonist, Harry Clifton, as a pre-schooler, whose family is so poor that he is happy to be allowed to lick the porridge bowl at breakfast after his uncle is through with it. There is his mother, Maisie Clifton, whose dream of a simple home with many children died with the sudden disappearance of her husband, and whose one youthful indiscretion came back to haunt her. The only dream left to her now is giving her only son a fighting chance at life.
The household consists of the overbearing Uncle Stan who works at the docks, is drunk when he’s not, knows more than he tells, and leaves just enough food for the others to keep from starving – and never lets them forget they are living there by the goodness of his nature. The others are Harry’s sharp speaking grandmother and seldom speaking, almost deaf grandfather, who nevertheless can come up with some very astute comments on subjects he isn’t supposed to hear.
As a child, Harry’s only friend is Old Jack Tar, an old man who lives in a railway carriage at the end of the dockyard. Warned away from the “stupid, dirty old tramp” by his uncle, Harry finds the lonely old fellow not only much cleaner than his uncle, but a veritable fountain of knowledge.
When Harry manages to get a coveted place at St. Bede’s, one of Bristol’s schools of higher learning — and deeper pockets — the boy who knows nothing of social skills quickly becomes a laughing-stock. But he garners two lifelong friends — the bespectacled and terrifyingly brilliant Deakins and the golden-hearted, silver-spooned Barrington.
Only Time Will Tell is a very well-written insight into Briton’s social stratum during international political upheaval.That it is written simply, concisely, and entertainingly, is even more of an anomaly considering that the author, Jeffrey Archer, was educated at Oxford University and served in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. He is a prolific writer who also wrote, among many others, As The Crow Flies, and The Eleventh Commandment, the only other books of his that I have read.
The only objections I had to Only Time Will Tell is that some of the plot was a little too simplistic and a bit of a stretch. But the excellent story-telling and writing skills far outweighed any of these objections. The other is the fact that it is Volume One of The Clifton Chronicles and the book ends with a cliffhanger – I’m talkin’ by your fingernails cliff hanging. To say that I was a little miffed would be an understatement of epic proportions. It’s a wonder the book is still in pristine condition.