William Boyd’s new novel is characteristically enjoyable. Set in Scotland, France of the Belle Epoque, Tsarist Russia, Switzerland, and finally, if oddly, the Andaman Islands, the narrative moves at an agreeable pace – certainly not too quickly to prevent the hero, Brodie Moncur, and his lover, a Russian singer called Lika, from lingering over meals in restaurants and cafes (menus supplied).
In outline it is simple. Moncur, a skilful piano-tuner, is promoted from his firm’s Edinburgh office and sent to Paris as the assistant manager of their piano emporium there. It is good to be in Paris, well away from his intolerable father, the Rev Malky Moncur, but at first business is slow. Then he devises a scheme. They will pay a star pianist to play their piano on a concert tour; it will be a great advertisement. So indeed it is, but unhappily, the star pianist is an unreliable and vicious Irish drunkard; more happily, Brodie is able to win his girlfriend, the gorgeous Lika.
This sets the plot going merrily, all the more so because the pianist has a nasty brother called Malachi. So we tour Europe, thus giving Boyd the opportunity to display the fruits of his assiduous research. There is a duel – of course there is a duel – in Russia (a nod to Pushkin), and a pursuit, and it is all quite gripping and rather gorgeous, a nice period Romance in the manner of Ouida.
One might also add that if you want a detailed introduction into the mysteries of tuning a piano, Boyd provides it for you. His research has been thorough here as elsewhere, and only an ungrateful reader will complain that they are being told more about piano-tuning than they want to know.
However, that ungrateful reader may have a point. This is a novel heavily burdened by the fruits of research, and perhaps overburdened. Novels are made from experience, observation and imagination. Research may be necessary to supplement any of them. Most novelists recognize that their store of experience may one day be exhausted. This can happen to the greatest. It happened to Scott. Every lover of the Waverley novels recognizes that there is a disparity between the novels set in Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries, and those set elsewhere at earlier times. It’s the difference between material remembered and material researched to make the novel.
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.
That said, there are a couple of instances in which his memory has failed him, and a bit of research might have set him right. He has Brodie taking the Hawick train from Edinburgh to get to Peebles, and he thinks, or seems to think that Border towns like Peebles and Melrose have “mayors” rather than provosts. Nor did I find Brodie’s father, the eccentric, hard-drinking and irascible minister, convincing. A Church of England parson might have got away with his extravagances; I reckon the Kirk Session of a Borders parish would have reined him in. On the other hand, Boyd is to be congratulated for his astute use of the Apocryphal Book of Baruch.
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. - ALLAN MASSIE
Love is Blind, by William Boyd, Viking, 371pp, £18.99