“I remember that afternoon, not long into our travels, sitting on deck in the mid-Atlantic sun on a slightly smirched and foggy day, the sky a pale washed-out blue above the smokestacks, that I asked my father what it was like to pick up a knife and make an incision into living flesh.” –The Blue Afternoon, William Boyd
Now THAT is an interesting first sentence! Rereading it now, I see the subtle reference to a “blue afternoon” here, but it’s not the titular one that stays so memorably in the reader’s mind. However, this first sentence very much reflects the novel— Boyd’s beautiful, atmospheric writing, a feeling of romance, and yet something gruesome and unexpected.
This is one of the books I picked up at the library sale a few weeks ago. I remember looking at it several times before it went into my “buy” pile. It looked familiar, yet I couldn’t quite remember….(this is one reason that I started keeping this blog—to both record and help me remember books by writing about them). Once I started reading, I soon recalled that I’d checked it out at the library and had given up after just a few chapters. I’d been turned off by the implausibility of certain events at the beginning of the story. I mean, if you were a single woman and a strange older man turned up in your life claiming to be your biological father but refusing to tell you the story/give you evidence, would you blithely join him on a trip to city in another state to find a mysterious woman in a photograph—and still not ask him to explain himself the entire time you are traveling together? I thought not. At this point, I returned the book to the library.
But since I’d purchased this book and I do so admire how effortless it is to read Boyd’s writing, I pushed onward this time. In fact, I zipped through this novel in about a day. I am glad I made the effort—the story was just the sort of tale in set in a faraway place that I was in the mood for. Some scenes, like the blue afternoon of the title, were terrifically romantic and cinematic, and the longing in the love story was palpable.
For all Boyd’s skill with language, however, I have sometimes felt in most of the novels I’ve read by him (Restless, Brazzaville Beach, Waiting for Sunrise, Any Human Heart) lack or suffer from awkward plotting. As mentioned, I found Kay’s response to her father’s appearance really odd at first, and later, felt that Kay’s life/story was completely unresolved. Instead, her story was displaced by her retelling her father’s story and so her presence in the novel seemed contrived rather than integral.
Most of the story is set in the early part of the 20th century in the Philippines. One of the main characters is a doctor and surgeon, and while his methods are characterized as “modern” – he washes his hands prior to surgery, for instance—there are lots of descriptions of his less enlightened and old-fashioned colleagues and their more brutal and filthy methods (pus on frockcoats, bloodstained collars, dirty nails, mutilations, blood letting, gore), along with graphic descriptions of diseases and treatments. It’s rather fascinating in itself and all this archaic medical hijinks contrasts with the delicacy of the love story.
I’m not sure this novel is 100% successful, but it’s easy enough to read at quick pace. And for all I complain about Boyd’s storytelling, I have another book by him sitting on the coffee table in front of me that I hope to jump into sometime soon.That will be book number six of his that I read, so I will still count William Boyd as one of my most compelling storytellers.