Natural Elements
Richard Mason
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Buy *Natural Elements* by Richard Mason online

Natural Elements
Richard Mason
416 pages
April 2010
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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This complex novel centers on the burdens of family history, examining the lives of mother and daughter Joan and Eloise McAllister as they face some of their toughest decisions and greatest life challenges. An ambitious hedge-fund executive, Eloise has picked The Albany, an expensive retirement home, as the perfect place for octogenarian Joan. Joan has reluctantly accepted the fact that she will have to leave her home for an institution of some sort just as she has accepted the other inevitabilities of life.

Yet both women seem to be living in a fierce state of denial. Eloise suddenly finds herself in charge of her mother’s financial life and her share portfolio that was liquidated in the dotcom bust of the 1990s. Reluctantly, Eloise is left to shoulder most of Joan’s troubles, knowing that it is probably useless to trouble her brother, George, who left London for a new life in Sydney several years ago.

But Eloise has other stresses. Having bet her mother’s future - and the fortunes of her company, Derby Capital - on the price of osmium, a rare and precious metal, Eloise is shocked to discover that its value on the commodity markets is declining fast. George Pasquir, her ex-boyfriend and a talented scientist who is doing research work into this powerful metal, has also threatened to abandon the project, his company no longer willing to guarantee its strength.

With her own daredevilry risking her personal and professional future as well as those of Derby Capital’s billionaire investors, Eloise is forced into a difficult position. Adding to the stress is her hard-driven boss, Patrick, and her colleague Carol, a harried parent who is jealous of Eloise’s seemingly carefree lack of responsibility and who secretly can’t wait for Eloise to fail.

Moving between Joan and Eloise’s worlds, Mason plays out their lives with delicacy, delving deep into the emotional and spiritual landscapes of both women. While Eloise remains haunted by her failed relationship with Claude, Joan increasingly resorts to the diary of her grandmother, Gertruida van Vuuren, and her heartbreaking account of her incarceration in a British concentration camp during the Boer War. Ironically, Gertruida’s life becomes a talisman against the despair that threatens to overwhelm Joan, providing her a spiritual link with a past far harsher and more brutal than the present.

Meanwhile, Eloise is buffeted by the combination of filial duty and fiscal responsibility, the fund’s hemorrhaging of clients and of money, Carol’s growing hatefulness, and the price of Joan’s care. Then there’s Joan, who descends into a fantasy netherworld where the previous inhabitants of The Albany come dramatically to life in her mind and she feels unequal to the challenges of her grandmother's memoirs.

Full of dramatic turns and colorful secondary characters, the first half of Natural Elements is a compelling account of Joan and Eloise’s trip to Bloemfontein, where Joan reconnects with her past. Here Mason sets the stage for his elegant and evocative drama showing the battle between opposing chemical forces of titanic strength. The women’s lives are certainly full of easy compromises, middle-aged angst, and the demands of family. But in the end, this rather convoluted novel feels as dense and weighty as the brittle shards of the past that sink deep into the delicate fragments of Joan’s increasingly erratic mind.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2009

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