A new William Boyd novel is always to be welcomed, and as with the superb Sweet Caress from 2015, Boyd has returned to a familiar “whole life” novel. (A recent Guardian piece by Boyd explores that challenges of this form, and notes how relatively few novels of this type there are).
Love is Blind tells the story of Brodie Moncur, the son of a fire and brimstone Scottish clergyman, who takes up the trade of piano tuner for a piano building business in Edinburgh. Soon enough Brodie moves on to a late 19th century Paris where the young, free and single man attempts to support the growth of the piano business by sponsoring performers to use their pianos.
In this way he runs into the ‘Irish Liszt’, John Kilbarron and his business partner brother Malachi. He also meets the Russian opera singer Lika. And so begins a tale that wanders across turn of the century Europe and further beyond.
Whole life novels like this need to condense a lot into a few pages, meaning that the plot tends to move along apace. Yet, we still need to time to get a feeling for the place and the period that we’re in. Boyd does this comfortably – his siblings trapped in the family home with their overbearing father ruling the roost; Edinburgh, Paris and Nice as the horse seems to be slowly beginning to make way for the motor car; and the high society of ‘Piter’ – St Petersburg.
The narrative keeps moving forward, and the characters feel real enough – big and bold though they may be at times. While perhaps not quite as strong as Sweet Caress which was a remarkable novel presenting us with photographs ‘taken’ by its protagonist, I was nonetheless entranced by this and when the end was reached, could have stayed on for much more.
Reading this also made me realise that I really do need to return to The New Confessions, Boyd’s 1987 novel that I first read around that time. My paperback edition is around somewhere…
Prior to reading Love is Blind, I finally caught up with Boyd’s recent collection of short stories, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth. While some characters are shared between stories, these are a series of mostly unrelated contemporary tales. I especially enjoyed the epistolary story of letters from an increasingly exasperated producer attempting to get a film off the ground. The story of the title is more of a novella, and is easily the best of the bunch as we follow Bethany through her early life and loves, and a series of jobs largely organised by her mother. The final story has the best hook, yet is perhaps the weakest and seems to stop a little too abruptly. But the short story seems to be a neglected medium – fit only for 15 minute slots on Radio 4, and to pad out seasonal editions of broadsheet newspapers when popular crime writers are commissioned to pen a festive whodunit. You won’t spend long on these tales, but they’re fun while you’re there.