The big canvas stretches and exposes the limitations of Boyne’s writing. No matter the historical period, everything’s rendered in a moth-eaten, non-specific literary prose where people “don” and “proffer” things and that never says in three words what it can say in 15. Without any sense of anachronism, the narrator analyses characters using the psychological jargon of the 20th century. “The girl had become deeply introverted since returning to the care of her mother, a state of mind I put down to the twin traumas of being used in bestial fashion by her father and the fact that she had been partly responsible for his death and the death of her grandmother,” he informs us. That’s not the fusty language of a Viennese psychoanalyst but a Selk’nam quiver maker from a nomadic tribe in 14th-century Patagonia.
Without the precision and attention to language that was also a hallmark of such formality in speakers from previous ages, we are left simply with laboured speech. Good old-fashioned historicalese. It’s hard even to get behind a well-meaning, spirited pastiche set in Shakespeare’s London (“verily”, “sooth”, etc). The characters themselves don’t seem to know what they mean: “‘It is a play,’ I replied. ‘No more, no less than that. But it has, I hope, a deal of excitement and adventure within its scenery.’”