This is the story of Dunstable Ramsey's life, written out in first person and addressed to the headmaster of the school where Ramsey had spent about forty years of his professional life. After all these years, Ramsey leaves behind this testament with the simple desire that someone understand what he had lived for.
His story gets off to a dismal start, as he is raised in a very rigid fashion in Deptford, a small village in Canada. Ramsey starts his memoir with the story that informed the rest of his life--or rather, it was his interpretation of the events of this fateful afternoon and the guilt he carried around with him that affected him forever. There is another boy involved in this story, Percy "Boy" Staunton, and the two of them make perfect foils.
While Ramsey lives an almost monkish life, Staunton grows rich and very well-known. While Ramsey is a scholar quietly publishing books on his subject, Staunton is hosting and attending lavish parties and building a business empire. That their friendship survives seems surprising at first, but it gradually becomes apparent that they do have their own form of symbiosis.
This is a fascinating story, in which Ramsey wrestles with his own life's meaning and duties. Some of the interesting characters he meets while studying in Europe (on sabbatical) do much to help him out. A memorable quote from a character named Liesl:
Do you know who I think you are, Ramsay? I think you are Fifth Business. "You don't know what that is? Well, in opera in a permanent company of the kind we keep up in Europe you must have a prima donna -- always a soprano, always the heroine, often a fool; and a tenor who always plays the lover to her; and then you must have a contralto, who is a rival to the soprano, or a sorceress or something; and a basso, who is the villain or the rival or whatever threatens the tenor.
"So far, so good. But you cannot make a plot work without another man, and he is usually a baritone, and he is called in the profession Fifth Business, because he is the odd man out, the person who has no opposite of the other sex. And you must have Fifth Business because he is the one who knows the secret of the hero's birth, or comes to the assistance of the heroine when she thinks all is lost, or keeps the hermitess in her cell, or may even be the cause of somebody's death if that is part of the plot. The prima donna and the tenor, the contralto and the basso, get all the best music and do all the spectacular things, but you cannot manage the plot without Fifth Business! It is not spectacular, but it is a good line of work, I can tell you, and those who play it sometimes have a career that outlasts the golden voices. Are you Fifth Business? You had better find out."
Without ruining the plot, there are corresponding characters in Ramsey's story, and it doesn't give too much away to say that Percy Staunton is certainly the villianous one. Also, there is a mystery of sorts that will be solved at the very end.
I'm leaving out a very important character entirely, so the future reader has something to discover. One of the things that made this book such a pleasure to read was the dialogue Ramsey has with some of the most vivid, engaging characters I've read in a long time.
Check this one out! It's the first book in The Deptford Trilogy, and it is highly likely that I will read the other ones, as well.