Natural Elements

Natural Elements

By Richard Mason

Knopf, Hardcover, 9780307267467, 416pp.

Publication Date: March 17, 2009


In his much celebrated debut novel, The Drowning People, Richard Mason (“An Oxonian literary sensation” —The New York Times Book Review) wrote with wisdom and mastery well beyond his twenty-one years—about love, betrayal, and revenge, and about the particular ritualized world of the English upper class.

Now in his dazzling new novel Mason writes about mothers and daughters; aging and death; memory and longing; history and narrative; and about the high-stakes, full-tilt embrace of life.

The setting is London. The time is the present.

Mother and daughter are choosing an assisted-living facility and have come to The Albany, a late-nineteenth-century Victorian mansion, the flagship property of the TranquilAge™ chain of nursing homes.

The mother, Joan—eighty years old, a gifted amateur pianist denied the pleasures of performance by arthritic hands—has recently been experiencing a rich inner world that she hides from her daughter, a world gained access through the (seemingly magic) pedals of her piano: a portal to adventure. She dreads the prospect of leaving her apartment, but her daughter has decided that she can no longer live on her own.

The daughter, Eloise—forty-eight, a hedge fund manager, two decades in commodities—long ago rejected the possibilities of motherhood and has lived enviably free of responsibility.

At her pressure-cooker job, Eloise has bought up $130 million (a quarter of the hedge fund’s money) of osmium reserves—a transition metal—based on a casual remark by her former lover, a French metallurgist, a genius of sorts, with whom she lived and whom she almost married in Paris in the 1980s.

He’s been working for years on the development of the compound, which will be tougher than diamonds for industrial use and is only months away from trials. If successful, it could more than double the value of the fund Eloise manages.

While mother and daughter are on the trip-of-a-lifetime to the South African capital of the old Orange Free State, the city of Joan’s girlhood, Eloise gets a frantic phone call. The price of osmium is in free fall; the fund is off-loading. . .

Fighting panic with a coherent strategy, Eloise puts in motion a bold gamble that risks all—her future, the fund, her mother’s well-being.

As the stories of mother and daughter intersect, each in a race against time—Joan struggling to live in the present (she cannot believe her days will end in an institution); her daughter racing at breakneck speed toward the precipice of disaster—the novel rushes to its stunning conclusion.

About the Author

Richard Mason was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and in London. The Drowning People was published when he was a student at Oxford. In 1999, Mason started the Kay Mason Foundation, which awards scholarships to students in South Africa. Mason lives in Glasgow, Scotland.

Praise For Natural Elements

“Impressive. . . a mature, inventive, ambitious novel. . . Mason brings a clear, inviting prose style that resists at every turn the temptation to be showy. To be as young as he is and already have three novels under his belt—the first two were The Drowning People (1999) and Us (2004)—is impressive enough, but to have written novels as good as these is far more so.”

—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“Ambitious. . . [it] weaves in elements of a corporate thriller and historical fiction flecked with fantasy. . . the South African passages are sublime and the mother-daughter relationship is well done.”

Publishers Weekly

“Rich in historical background and indelible characters. . . an ambitious and brutally honest view of love, family and aging.”