When you get a group of single women together, the stories flow for hours. There is a lot of laughter and sometimes a few tears. Single life is a foreign country and there are things you quickly learn which are so far from your experience as a married or partnered person. I see it from a female perspective of course but sometimes a woman can get a little insight into life as a single man. A few months ago I had dinner with a charming, intelligent man who was very good company. Things were going swimmingly until we got onto the topic of how he was finding the single life. His happy demeanour dissolved, he hung his head and said sadly, “Women read a lot of books.”
So I consider myself lucky that my first romantic encounter as a newly single woman was with a man who was a great reader of fiction. Never mind that he was subsequently labelled “The Cad” by one of my very dear male friends. He put me onto William Boyd, a wonderful English writer in the tradition of W Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Beautiful writing and terrific stories. For this, I will be eternally grateful (and forgive his much later recommendation of The Time Traveller’s Wife).
I credit A Good Man in Africa as getting me back into reading again, or rather, enjoying reading again, after a few hard years. I laughed so much. Morgan Leafy is a young British diplomat in the small African republic of Kinjana. The book is set in the 1960s and is a tale of incompetence, corruption, blackmail and venereal disease – of the British in general and Leafy in particular. Leafy is in love with a woman who has just become engaged to someone else and his personal failings lead him from one disaster to another. By the end of the book, there is no sense of resolution or redemption. It’s hard to believe that Leafy has learnt anything at all. It’s a funny and intelligent book and it was hard for me at the time to think of anything I had ever enjoyed so much.
The Ice cream War (Penguin Decades 1999) was the next Boyd book I read. Set in German East Africa in 1914, it follows the private dramas of a number of men and women, set against the growing inevitability of war. It is a tense experience for the reader – we know how the big picture pans out. Boyd spent his early years in Africa and he certainly knows a lot about the history. This knowledge doesn’t get in the way of the story. Ice Cream War is not light hearted like A Good Man in Africa but it is a very satisfying read.
Ordinary Thunderstorms (Bloomsbury 2009) is set in present day London and examines what happens to an individual when everything is taken away from them. Adam Kindred, a climatologist, is in London for a job interview, following difficulties with his marriage and job in the US. He is anxious for a new start. After random conversation with a stranger in an Italian restaurant, he is quickly drawn into a series of events where he is wrongfully accused of murder and forced to flee from both the police and the murderer. In order to survive, he has to abandon everything that identifies him and he begins to live as a beggar on the streets of London. Boyd has clearly set out to play with the classic English thriller novel (think The 39 Steps among others) and the book examines the dark side of contemporary London (or any large, international city) – the underworld, corruption, big business, the pharmaceutical industry, prostitution… Some reviewers feel that this book was not among Boyd’s best but I found it a compelling story. The BBC has bought the rights to the book and Boyd himself will write the screenplay. I look forward to it.
The next Boyd book I read was Waiting for Sunrise (Harper 2012). I must admit I was very disappointed by this book. Ordinary Thunderstorms was not a perfect book, and it tried to do too much, but overall the story and writing made up for it. The same can’t be said for Waiting for Sunrise. The book begins in Vienna in 1913. A young English actor, Lysander Rief, is in Vienna for psychotherapy. After an ill-advised passionate affair with a fellow patient (aren’t they always?), Rief is drawn into the shadowy world of espionage. It seems odd that the troubled young man turns into such a confident spy. It is all linked to the complicated psychoanalytic theories of Rief’s therapist. (Freud appears in the book to discount the theory.) It’s all a bit too “clever”. The book jumps around in tone, moves confusingly between London and Vienna and does not seem to know what it wants to be – psychological drama, spy thriller, family saga. All very confusing and in the end unsatisfying and disappointing.
I have a number of other, earlier, books by William Boyd on my bookshelf waiting to be read. Like all new, intense relationships we saw quite a bit of each other in the beginning and I was inclined to see him as the perfect man/writer. We’re past that heady stage now. I can read other authors. I can enjoy them and I have even stopped comparing them to him. But I do like him. A lot.
William Boyd has been contracted by Ian Fleming’s family to write a new book about James Bond. It is set in 1969 and Bond is 45 years old. I am very much looking forward to its release in September 2013.
Women do read a lot of books it’s true. And when The Wheeler Centre runs literary speed dating nights, tickets for women sell out almost immediately and they have to run stories in The Age at the last minute to get enough men along. Men must read books, but it’s been rare in my experience to meet one who reads widely and can recommend authors I can fall in love with. Prove me wrong. And if you can find one who is not a cad, I’d be even happier….