Monday, April 24, 2023

the last book I read

Love Is Blind by William Boyd.

Meet Brodie Moncur. He's a tuner. What, a large pelagic fish of the mackerel family? Well, no. This guy tunes pianos for a living and is already building quite a reputation for himself in Edinburgh as the go-to guy in the piano-tuning game (hardest game in the world, the old piano-tuning game). Octaves all stretchy and flabby? E-flat a little too flat? Perfect fifths sound like diminished sixths? Brodie's your man.

Brodie works for the established Edinburgh piano-making firm of Channon's and has already proven himself a useful and resourceful employee, not just for his technical skill but also for some innovative and profitable business and sales ideas. So when the company decides to expand and start up a new showroom in Paris, Brodie is given the job of assistant manager, the top job obviously going to a member of the Channon family, regardless of their level of crookedness and incompetence.

Anyway, Brodie relocates to Paris and immediately comes up with a couple of profile-raising and money-making ruses for Channon's: firstly setting up a tuning and repair business in the local area, rather than having to ship something literally the size of a piano all the way to Edinburgh, and secondly acquiring the services of some high-profile pianists to play Channon pianos in some sort of prototypical product placement/sponsorship type of deal. Their main catch turns out to be John Kilbarron, a fiery Irish pianist, probably slightly past his sell-by date and these days a bit keen on the old sauce and occasionally unreliable, but still a big crowd-puller. Brodie is given personal responsibility for ensuring Kilbarron's pianos are tuned exactly to his specifications, including lightening the keys to accommodate some increasing weakness in Kilbarron's right hand (almost certainly connected to the epic booze consumption). 

During the course of his duties for Kilbarron (actually the Kilbarrons, plural, as John's brother Malachi acts as a manager for his brother) Brodie meets John Kilbarron's girlfriend and companion Lydia ("Lika") Bloom, an aspiring (but, we are invited to infer, slightly rubbish) opera singer. Brodie's interest immediately perks up: I wouldn't mind lifting her lid and adjusting her G-string, showing her my classical fingering technique, etc., and as it turns out the feeling seems to be mutual and they soon embark on a clandestine affair.

Several other things then happen at once: a dispute between the Kilbarrons and Channon's results in their contractual relationship being terminated, Brodie coughs up a gallon of blood, is diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to the south of France to convalesce and on his return is sacked by Channon's after a series of financial irregularities is discovered. It is made clear to Brodie that non-one seriously suspects him, but the alternative (and, as it happens, correct) explanation is that the younger Channon is responsible, and blood is thicker than water, old chap, I'm sure you understand.

Brodie is therefore free to resume his employment with the Kilbarrons, directly this time, and accompany them to Russia for a lucrative concert tour. All the to-ing and fro-ing between St. Petersburg and the country dacha that their Russian benefactor has laid on provides some limited opportunities for Brodie and Lika to do some discreet boning, but evidently they're not discreet enough and they are discovered by Malachi. Malachi is shrewd enough to know that telling John would send him into an alcoholic spiral and endanger the concerts, but uses the knowledge as leverage to have Brodie and Lika do his bidding (item one: no more boning). Gradually the whole professional relationship deteriorates and eventually Brodie quits. This might not be so bad but he also takes the opportunity to subtly sabotage Kilbarron's piano so that that night's concert is a fiasco. The combined knowledge that Malachi has fucked his concert and his girlfriend is too much for John Kilbarron and he challenges Brodie to a duel. In turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg these are generally stylised affairs where both protagonists fire into the air, honour is seen to have been done (by virtue simply of turning up, presumably) and everyone goes home. Not so in this case as it soon becomes clear that John Kilbarron very much intends to kill Brodie in a very real and non-stylised sense, and Brodie only manages to escape his fate by wielding Lika's pistol that he has concealed about his person and shooting Kilbarron through the chest with it.

Apparently there are some legal consequences to shooting someone through the heart in a field, and bearing in mind these, as well as Malachi's likely lust for revenge, Brodie and Lika flee St. Petersburg and make a circuitous way through various European cities in an attempt to escape. But Malachi is relentlessly determined, and after their travels take them to southern France, then Edinburgh (incorporating a brief reunion with Brodie's family including dreadful old patriarch Malky Moncur) and then back to France again, they discover that Malachi is still on their trail. Eventually Brodie awakens in a hotel room in Nice to discover that Lika has left him and gone to present herself to Malachi, it being her he really wants. Brodie struggles to make sense of this and tracks her down to Paris where she reveals that she has been married to Malachi since she was eighteen and transferred her affections to John with his approval for the collective good of their business arrangements, but that a similar arrangement with Brodie was intolerable to him. 

Brodie mooches around Switzerland for a while making a living from piano-tuning but still has suspicions that Malachi has agents on his tail, and so decides in a more radical course of action: fuck right off round the world to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a destination he selects by literally sticking a pin in a map. Precious few pianos here but he finds work as an assistant to Page Arbogast, an anthropologist studying the local tribes. He is happy enough in his work but still experiences occasional paranoia about Malachi - will he pursue him even here? Will one of his tubercular attacks finish him off first? Will Lika free herself from Malachi and come to him?

Wikipedia tells me that this is Boyd's fifteenth novel; by my calculations I have read twelve of these fifteen, the only omissions being the early novel An Ice-Cream War, the faux-biography Nat Tate and the James Bond story Solo. By this stage you pretty much know what you're going to get and it's hard to avoid comparisons with other Boyd works - the obvious one is the broad similarities between the love story here and the one in The Blue Afternoon; lovers carrying on an affair despite the female protagonist being inextricably attached to someone else and planning to escape to grow old together but never quite managing to land the happy ending. Like Sweet Caress it's also something of a return to the biographical style of earlier novels like The New Confessions and Any Human Heart after a period of producing more plot-driven thrillers like Restless and Ordinary Thunderstorms. One thing that you know you're going to get with a Boyd is a Ruddy Good Story - I'm suspicious of any attempt to group writers into "novelists" and "storytellers", usually because the latter category is used as an excuse for, or a badge-of-honour inverted-snobbery revelling in, horrible clunky prose, not something you could ever accuse Boyd of. 

That said, there are a few quibbles: the nature of the hold that Malachi has over Lika is never very well explained, and nor is the relentlessness with which he pursues Brodie (though to be fair I suppose he did kill his brother), and some of the ventures into music theory to explain the emotional impact of a particular piece of music have a whiff of authorial insistence in displaying the depth of his research. Brodie also seems to be irresistibly attractive to women: in addition to Lika there's a whiff of something with Brodie's Russian doctor, the young daughter of the Kilbarrons' Russian benefactor throws herself at him and at the end of the novel Page Arbogast makes it fairly clear that she is Well Up For It as well. 

But it's very good and tremendously readable, as Boyd's novels always are (this is the sixth to appear on this blog, which brings Boyd level with Ian McEwan in joint second place behind Iain Banks). I would say it's definitely better than its immediate predecessor Sweet Caress, and you'd probably have to go all the way back to 2002's Any Human Heart to find one that's better. The early-1990s pair of Brazzaville Beach and The Blue Afternoon remain my favourites, though. 

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