Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Boyd – William’ Category

Trio by William Boyd

Trio by William Boyd was unlike anything I have previously read by this author.

The story was set in Brighton in the late 1960s and followed a group of people working together to make a film.

The novel’s main character was the producer, Talbot Kydd. Talbot was rich, kind and a gentleman. The day to day irritations of Talbot’s job involved keeping the ego and mad ideas of the film’s director in check, ensuring the film’s stars turned up to work and stopping crew members from stealing film to make pornographic movies.

The director’s wife, renowned author Elfrida Wing was a barely-functioning alcoholic who hadn’t written anything in ten years. When Elfrida came up with an idea for a new novel based on Virginia Woolf, who Elfrida’s own writing was often compared to, Elfrida bailed up Woolf’s husband Leonard in his own garden and asked him about the events of the day his wife suicided. I don’t think I’ve ever cringed more while reading a novel.

The third main character was Anny Viklund, the star of the movie. Anny was a victim of her own stupidity when it came to men. During her time on the film she had an affair with her co-star, a sweet English pop star who took Anny home to meet his parents, but was at the same time assisting her terrorist ex-husband who had escaped from jail and trying to please her current lover, a French philosopher.

None of the character’s private lives crossed over into each others’, although their stories co-existed comfortably. Each of the characters had secrets and problems to endure. Talbot was secretly gay and had a life his wife and son knew nothing about (nothing sordid, more a secret life), Anny was secretive about her drug use and juggling her various relationships, while Elfrida was hiding alcoholism and the fact that she knew her husband was having an affair with the film’s scriptwriter.

When I think about Trio in future I expect I’ll recall Elfrida’s obtuseness during her conversation with the fictional Leonard Woolf. This made me wonder if authors are so single-minded when they are immersed in writing a novel that they don’t consider or care that their research may potentially be offensive, or if William Boyd used this scene to make fun of real authors or even of himself.

Trio wasn’t my favourite of Boyd’s novels, but the Elfrida-Leonard Woolf scene might make it the most memorable.

Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

I’ve been enjoying working my way through William Boyd’s novels but although I enjoyed Waiting for Sunrise, I wouldn’t include this story amongst his best works.

The story starts with Lysander Reif, a “young, almost conventionally handsome man” visiting a psychologist in Vienna in 1913 for a sexual problem.

Lysander was quickly cured by an experimental treatment which the doctor called ‘Parallelism’. The treatment consisted of Lysander writing down his thoughts and memories, which then formed part of the narration. After discussing Lysander’s writings with him the doctor then hypnotised Lysander to create new memories which displaced various upsetting events in his past. I thought that Lysander’s heady affair with an attractive and sexually adventurous woman, Hettie Bull, may have effected his cure rather than Parallelism, but who knows?

Lysander’s romance with Hettie ended when her common-law husband discovered she was pregnant, at which point Hettie accused Lysander of rape rather than own up to the affair. An acquaintance from the British Embassy put up bail for Lysander on the proviso he was confined to the consulate, then helped him to escape and return to England.

Lysander’s escape came with a price, and as he was unable his bill from the Embassy, he was recruited to find a high-level traitor to Great Britain when World War One broke out to repay his debt. Lysander found himself waiting for sunrise in no man’s land hoping not to be shot at by his own country, England’s allies or the enemy. At other times he carried out mind-numbingly boring audits of war offices while trying to work out who the traitor was and who was bluffing who.

Spy novels, war stories or thrillers aren’t my preferred genre, so even though I enjoyed Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms which was also a thriller very much, I’ll probably avoid anything else Boyd writes in these genres. I’m hoping to read Brazzaville Beach next.

Any Human Heart by William Boyd

Any Human Heart was my latest foray into William Boyd’s back catalogue. The story was completely different to the others I’ve read while being equally as good.

Any Human Heart is written as the journal of a fictional character, Logan Mountstuart. The book contained annotations and an index at the back with page references to real people, places and events which made it seem as if Logan were a real person. Logan was a writer and the people in his life were a who’s who of the writing and arts world as well as fictional versions of society figures. They included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Picasso and many others, all of whom lived their lives alongside the fictional characters.

The journal began when Logan was a teenager in school with his two best friends during the early 1920s. It continued through Logan’s University years followed by his early successes as a writer, the effects of the stock market crash of the late 1920s on his family’s finances, then his marriage and the birth of his daughter before he met a woman who became the love of his life. World War Two interrupted Logan’s life enormously and significantly changed the life he had expected to live after the war ended.

As well as being a writer, Logan was also an art collector and at various times during his life owned works by many of the most famous artists of his times. He had very strong ideas of what was good art and what was not, and I was amused to learn that Logan had a very low opinion of Jackson Pollock’s works (an opinion still shared by many older Australians who were outraged when the Labour Government of the time controversially purchased Blue Poles for a record price in 1973. These days the estimated price of the painting make the purchase a good buy, but the value of the painting as art is still a talking point).

The places where Logan lived were diverse and included Uruguay, England, France, the United States of America as well as a stint in Nigeria.

Logan isn’t perfect and he doesn’t pretend to be, at least to himself in his journals.

One small complaint is that I felt Logan’s story had the potential to play with my emotions far more than it actually did. For example, some sections left me feeling happy but not overjoyed, or sad but not gutted. I felt as if the author was capable of pulling at my heartstrings had he wanted to but restrained himself.

Despite this, Any Human Heart is very good and I am loving working my way through William Boyd’s books.

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

dreamsThe Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth is my latest foray into William Boyd’s works. This is an excellent collection of short stories.

The Man Who Liked Kissing Women is about a married man who gave up adulterous affairs in favour of kissing women other than his wife. There weren’t many women in Ludo’s circle whom he hadn’t already kissed, but those he hadn’t were on his to-do-list. Ludo was an art dealer, on the verge of pulling off the most lucrative deal of his career when he is tempted to stray from his kissing-only policy.

The Road Not Taken begins with a man and a woman accidently meeting five years after their relationship ended. The story of their five-year relationship is told backwards, from their break-up, to various events in the early stages of their romance, and ends with their first meeting.

Humiliation made me snicker. A writer who receives a poor review from a critic gets his revenge on the critic in a nasty and satisfying way.

The Things I Stole is another satisfying story, where the narrator tells his story by recounting all of the things he stole throughout his life, starting with a friend’s lapel badge in his childhood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the narrator eventually went on to defraud his company. I’m not sure I should have felt as if I was on the narrator’s side, but I was. I blame William Boyd’s superb writing for my moral confusion.

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth follows a young woman over the course of a year as she bounces from boyfriend to boyfriend, job to job and from dream to dream, then going home to Mum when things go wrong. Bethany is a dreamer. If Bethany were a real person, I think she would still be a dreamer in 20 years time. I loved this story and almost wish this story had been extended into a novel, although a forty-something year old dreamer is not as charming as a young and beautiful dreamer, so William Boyd probably stopped this story at exactly the right time.

William Boyd is a writer who knows what he is doing. I’m a reader who is happy to let him tell his stories in any way he likes. I’m madly looking forward to the next one I can find.

 

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

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William Boyd is an author who I’ve been working up to for some time. I started with Ordinary Thunderstorms for the simple reason that this was the book my library had on the shelf.

Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller which I found so exciting that I didn’t want to put the book down. I read on the train to and from work, and this is one of those books that I could have stayed on the train with, travelling all over Melbourne until I finished the story instead of getting off at Flinders Street and heading into work, had I not been the diligent, hard-working person that I am.*

The story starts with the main character, Adam Kindred walking along the bank of the Thames River in London. Adam is a climatologist who has just had a job interview, (which went well, by the way), when he gets hungry and drops in to a neighbourhood restaurant in Chelsea. During his meal, Adam speaks with another man, a fellow scientist who is dining alone. After the other man left the restaurant, Adam realises the other man left a folder of paperwork under his table. Adam picks the folder up, finds the other man’s name and phone number inside and phones him. The man is Dr Philip Wang, and he gratefully invites Adam for a drink in his apartment when he returns the folder. When Adam turns up, Philip is lying on his bed with a knife in his chest. Philip is still alive and convinces Adam to pull the knife out, but when Adam does, Philip dies.** At this point Adam hears somebody outside on Philip’s balcony, so he takes the folder and bolts.

Instead of going straight to the police Adam returns to his accommodation where he has a lucky escape from the person who was on Philip’s balcony, then realising that he might not be safe with the police, goes on the run and disappears in London.

Adam is being hunted by the police for Philip’s murder and is also being hunted by the person who killed Philip, presumably because he has Philip’s folder. Adam makes enquiries and learns that Philip was trialling an asthma treatment for children in London hospitals called Zembla-4, which is being funded by a large pharmaceutical company.

The story of how Adam managed to disappear was fascinating. By not using his phone, passport or bank cards Adam became invisible, but the social ties he made as time went on (both wanted and unwanted) were dangerous to his ongoing anonymity. Adam turns out to be a sucker for women though, which is why he was in London looking for a new job in the first place. One woman Adam meets along the way provides him with shelter and her affection, although for a price. Rita, a policewoman who works on the Thames River, seems likely to catch Adam in his campout on the riverbank at any moment.

For a thriller, this story meanders along, constantly delving into fascinating asides such as how homeless and people in terribly low socio-economic circumstances live, cult religions, the ethics (or lack of them) in big business, policing on the Thames River and work options for former SAS soldiers. There were a few sections of the story that made me squeamish and other sections that I delighted in.

From time to time I became irritated with Adam. For a scientist he didn’t always think clearly, but I was always on his side, hoping against overwhelming odds that the bad guys would be exposed and punished and the good guys would win.***

I’m keen to read more books by William Boyd but don’t want to spoil these for myself by reading others too soon. Waiting to read another is going to be a little like being on a diet, but knowing there is chocolate out there somewhere. Highly recommended.

*If this last sentence sounds a bit sucky, it is because my boss occasionally reads my reviews…

**My First Aid Certificate is well out of date, but I do remember learning that if somebody has been stabbed or impaled in any way, First Aiders are supposed to wrap the implement so it doesn’t get bumped and call an ambulance, rather than trying to remove it, which can cause as much damage as sticking it in.

***You don’t always get what you want. Not saying whether things work out okay for Adam or not, read Ordinary Thunderstorms and find out for yourself.

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