...racing fin-de-siècle romance... Women enter the story bust first... Now, you’ll say, lighten up, not every book can be Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Point taken. Elegant and affecting as the book is, beautifully recreating opera houses and grand hotels, and bringing a bonny tear to the eye with its denouement, Lika lets the story down. Lika is meant to be a cipher, a Woman with a Past, a Russian riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an etc etc.
He whips up a variety of tangy urban and rural backdrops with cinematic panache too, and stuffs his novel full of deliciously dramatic conceit... Yet from the title onwards, there is a strong whiff of potboiler about Love Is Blind that is always at the expense of narrative substance. Boyd’s cleverest trick is to keep things moving at such a pace you barely have time to notice.
His career consists of an endless flow of stories in the great realist tradition, with strong plots, well-rounded characters, and written in a language that anyone can understand... As with much of his work, Boyd’s new novel Love is Blind tells the story of an energetic and sweet-natured outsider attempting to make his way in life: the obvious comparison is with Dickens, but Boyd’s tenor and tone is all Chekhov (he’s adapted Chekhov for the stage and written brilliantly about the Russian’s art of the short story)... The book begins and continues at a cracking pace – or perhaps a cinematic stride – with scenes, scenarios, set-pieces and minor characters aplenty, all of which and all of whom might easily detain another writer for an entire book... But every detail counts, with Boyd brilliantly exploiting and adhering to the relentless logic of the Chekhovian rifle on the wall: all of the objects, all of the places, all of the people ultimately serve the story. He makes it look easy: he’s a pro.
In spite of the enjoyable local colour and the skill with which the tense confrontations are engineered, in the end Love Is Blind feels too mechanical, too insistent. The Scottish folk song “My Bonny Lad”, which Moncur transcribes for Lika, is stolen by Kilbarron to be reworked as the concert crowd-pleaser “Der Tränensee”. Its crucial melodic change and tear-jerking harmonies are evoked too often as a nudge to the reader, as is Lika’s little dog César, brought on at impracticable intervals to suggest feeling and fidelity. The novel’s final section, set among the Andaman and Nicobar Islands off the coast of Burma, is a diminuendo too far.
William Boyd’s 15th novel begins well enough. In 1894 Edinburgh, a 24-year-old piano tuner is promoted to the Paris branch of the firm he works for. Boyd is good on the inner workings of the piano: ‘the hammers, the rockers, the jacks, the whippens, the dampers — its innards were exposed like a clock with its back off or a railway engine dismantled in a repair shed...There is nothing wrong with a male novelist describing the physicality of his female characters, Thomas Hardy was memorably taken with Sue Bridehead’s ‘apple-like convexities’, after all. What we remember of Jude the Obscure, however, is the tragic quashing of Sue’s free-spirited independence, in contrast to Lika Blum, whose ‘lovely titties’, as one character describes them, overshadow her inner life.
It’s carefully, even expertly, plotted. But beyond the use of fancy words such as “nugatory” and “refulgent”, the prose makes few emotional or intellectual demands. The clichéd dialogue doesn’t help. People say things like: “Ah, Paris… she can be a difficult mistress” and “He can put it in his pipe and smoke it”.
In the novel made possible by long research you can usually see the craftsman, rather than the artist, at work, and Boyd who has sometimes – in The New Confessions, for instance – shown himself to be a very fine artist, has always had his mastery of the craft of making a novel to rescue him, so he never fails to make a book which is agreeably readable and enjoyable. There are admittedly passages when his love of detail makes for slow, even heavy, going, but this rarely matters when you sense that the detail has been supplied by memory – comes indeed from the depths of memory. It matters rather more when, as here, it seems to have been got up to give colour and the appearance of authenticity.
. . .
In short, Love is Blind is the equivalent of a nice blended whisky rather than the fine malt that Boyd provided in, for instance Any Human Heart. It’s Boyd at less than full throttle, but that is still better and far more engaging than the work of most novelists.
This novel-his 15th-opens in Edinburgh in 1894 where young musician Brodie Moncur is working for the celebrated piano makers Channon & Co. When Brodie moves to their Paris showroom he meets famous pianist John Kilbarron, his faintly menacing brother and, most fatefully, John's lover, the soprano Lika Blum. Brodie's obsession with Lika, and his entanglements with the Kilbarrons, will take him across Europe from Paris to St Petersburg to the South of France and even further afield as the 19th century becomes the 20th. A sweeping novel about passion, music and revenge.
Boyd was selected in 1983 as one of Granta magazine's Best Of Young British Novelists list, and it may seem odd to suggest that he's never really fulfilled that promise compared to some of the other names on the list, such as Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Pat Barker or Ian McEwan... There have been 15 novels and five short-story collections, as well as a scattering of plays, screenplays, non-fiction works. He's won numerous prizes. But there's something about Boyd that has always felt slightly unnecessary. His books never feel essential in the way that the best works of his contemporaries do, and this book is no exception. It's all very tidy and efficient, but he never really lets himself go.
After a dip in which he produced some well-written, commercially successful but slightly anonymous thrillers, Boyd is back on a form few of his contemporaries can match. It is inevitable that the towering success of Any Human Heart will define the rest of his career – and many might miss the quirky, low-key comedy of his earlier novels – but this fine, touching and clever book is the best thing he’s written since