I was truly intrigued by William Boyd: a successful and acclaimed British novelist that I had not yet tapped. So when a friend at my book group suggested Boyd’s latest book, I was genuinely excited. Even reading the blurb on the back of the book got my eyes watering with anticipation. A literary thriller about a man who has to untangle himself from 21st century existence after it looks like he committed a murder, calling into question his whole identity and poking at the idea of social cohesion? I was about ready to pop.
Instead, I flopped. The novel starts off well by setting up the story and hinting at the debate mentioned above (and promised in the blurb) but after about a quarter of the way through, it started to flounder. Gradually, over the following 300 pages I became more and more disappointed. By the end, I felt deflated, as if Boyd had sucked all the life out of me by stealing the time I had invested in this inadequate, dastardly novel.
In the end, there is no debate about having to forego the trappings of 21st century life. Our hero, a classic fugitive-what-didn’t-do-it, gradually sheds his modern, middle-class identity. But there is no analysis of this process – which the character, an academic, would surely have thought about. We are told that he is intelligent, but it is not clear from his thoughts. Why not? The answer is because Boyd is far too busy creating pantomime villains who run pharmaceutical companies. The stereotypes are all there: the power-hungry careerist, the privileged but foolish board member, the devious foreign investor… not to mention the former SAS bulkhead hired to track down our man. The number of words Boyd wastes on ‘characterising’ this mob of archetypes would have been much more effectively spent on providing the insightful analysis promised by the synopsis and opening section.
Finally, there is just something about this book that reeks of the inauthentic. From the stereotypically evil corporate villains to the streetwise scoundrels our hero comes across, I don’t think Boyd is capable of writing any of them. I am happy to let novelists alter city landscapes and even their social trappings to suit the book but Boyd’s characterisations of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe are so way off, as if they are whirlpools of social horror, that he should have invented place names. Moreover, the language spoken by their unfortunate inhabitants is embarrassing: “You keep chillin’, man” / “You dey got problem?” / “The electric he go be difficult. We have many problem.” I don’t speak street, but I’d bet that this is completely wrong. Where did Boyd do his research? Watching The Bill?