Dull. Dreary. Dry. These are not words I would ever have expected to use to describe a novel by William Boyd.
I used to love his work. Sadly the William Boyd who wrote the masterpiece Any Human Heart and the highly enjoyable Brazzaville Beach and A Good Man In Africa, seems to have disappeared. The new incarnation if Love is Blind is anything to go by, is but a pale imitation.
Love is Blind is fundamentally a historical romance featuring a Scottish piano tuner and his obsessive love for a Russian singer. In the late 1890s, Brodie Moncur works for Channon & Co, an Edinburgh-based piano manufacturer. He’s thought of so highly he gets sent to Paris to help establish a branch in the city and drum up new business.
He comes up with a clever marketing scheme to get leading pianists to always use Channon pianos for their performances. It’s through this project he encounters John Kilbarron – “The Irish Liszt” – once a brilliant pianist but now finding his powers at an ebb. It’s also how Moncur meets and falls for Kilbarron’s lover, the would-be opera singer Lika Brum.
Discovery of the lovers’ trysts triggers a breakdown in Moncur’s professional relationship with Kilbarron. The piano tuner ends up criss-crossing Europe finding work as best he can and trying to stay one step ahead of Kilbarron’s vengeful brother. Lika flits in and out but even when she is not physically with Moncur he can’t stop thinking about her. His love for her is indeed so blind he can’t see what is patently obvious to readers: this woman can’t be trusted.
Why Love Is Blind Is Boring
First of all, Love is Blind moves very slowly, particularly at the beginning. It takes 50 pages before Moncur is even in Paris and another 50 before the relationship with Kilbarron materialises. A fair chunk of the early pages are taken up by a trip to his home in Scotland and a hostile encounter with his father. It’s an odd episode. There’s a history between this pair that William Boyd hints at but never fully explains so the point of the episode was wholly lost on me.
Most of the novel takes place in Russia, Paris and the French Riviera but Boyd manages to rob these locations of any kind of atmosphere.
He brings Scotland to life well as on his first visit home after many years:.
“The dog cart clip-clopped through the village and led them past the church, St Mungo’s, still looking new – pure Gothic Revival with flying buttresses, finials wherever a finial could be placed and a tall bell tower with no steeple. Its rowan- and yew-dotted cemetery was crowded with ancient graves, former parishioners, the late, good folk of the Liethen Valley. Then they turned into the gravelled carriage drive of the manse, set in a wide dark garden filled with ornamental conifers – monkey puzzles, larches and cedars – and beech trees. Beeches grew well in the Liethen Valley soil.”
But when it gets to some of the greatest cities in Europe, we got what sounded more like bland travelogue. Here’s how in a letter to his brother in Scotland, Moncur describes one of the grandest streets in St Petersburg:
Think of Edinburgh’s Princes Street transported to Russia and double the width. Shops, apartments, grand hotels –and there are three of these great boulevards radiating out from the Admiralty complex of buildings on the southern bank of the Neva river. Perhaps Piter’s Champs-Elysees might give you a better sense of the huge scale of these streets.
Doesn’t give you much of sense of the place does it? Even so, its better than the picture we’re given of Graz in Austria:
… the provincial capital of Styria, a venerable small city situated 120 miles or so to the south of Vienna. Graz was divided by the river Mur, surrounded by the high mountains of the eastern Alps and dominated by its own castle on a hill, the Schlossburg.
If this had been written by a less well established author I’d be harbouring suspicions that they’d just copied text from the state’s travel brochure….
How Not To Show Historical Context
To add to my frustrations Boyd seemed to think it necessary to contextualise the story by stuffing his novel with lists of world events. And so in Biarritz, Moncur picks up a newspaper:
An anarchist had shot at – and missed – the Prince of Wales in Belgium, the Olympic Games were about to start in Paris, and the Automobile Club of Great Britain had completed a 1,000 mile trial run from London to Edinburgh They not only felt awkward they served no useful purpose. I used to love his work but will be very reluctant to pick up anything by him in the future.
Earlier, while in Paris recuperating from his first episode of tubercolosis, he occupies his days reading newspapers.
He read about the continuing animosities of the Dreyfus Affair, the celebrations being organized around Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the economic tribulations facing President McKinley , and a review of a shocking new novel called Dracula.
Every time I encountered one of these passages, it had the effect of deadening what was already unremarkable prose.
Love is Blind has sadly very few redeeming qualities. It was one of the dullest books I’ve read all year.
The plot was pedestrian; the obsession not obsessive enough, none of the main characters were well rounded. As for Moncur, well frankly I didn’t feel strongly enough to care whether he captured the girl of his dreams or remained blinded by love.
It wasn’t so bad that I felt compelled to abandon the book before the end (though I really kept going only because it was a book club choice). But it was poor enough to convince me that it will be a long time before I pick up another William Boyd novel. I shall just wallow in the pleasure of the past rather than have any expectations for future pleasure.
I wouldn’t like to be drawn against Graeme Macrae Burnet in any game that requires participants to keep a straight face while lying through one’s teeth. He’d be far too good for me to spot if he was telling porkies. Not that I know the man personally you understand – I’m basing my depiction of his character entirely on the subterfuge he concocts in his novel His Bloody Project.
This is a book that is written to make you think it’s a true story. It’s subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” for one thing and contains a preface declaring that these documents relate to a murder trial that the author uncovered while researching his family history. The documents ‘found’ in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness include a manuscript in “handwriting… admirably clear with only the most occasional crossings-out and false starts” about a triple murder. Burnet keeps up the fiction that this is a ‘true’ story through the rest of the book, presenting it in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial. And so we get witness statements, a written account by Roderick Macrae, the 17-year-old crofter accused of the murders, an extract from a (fictional) investigation by the (real) pioneering criminologist James Bruce Thomson and local newspaper accounts of the trial.
But this is neither a story about one of his ancestors nor a fictionalised account of a real incident. However, according to a newspaper interview with Burnet there is some grain of truth in His Bloody Project. In the novel, for example two of Roderick Macrae’s uncles die in a shipwreck – a similar accident befell two of Burnet’s own family around the same time as the novel is set and close to the location of the fictional tragedy. There actually was a triple murder committed some forty years earlier by a crofter just like Roderick Macrae but both these incidents only came to light after Burnet had finished the first draft of his novel.
This is one ingeniously plotted novel. We know from the early part of the book that Roderick is in prison accused of beating to death the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie who had waged a war of intimation against his father. There is no question that Roderick is the culprit – he was seen with blood on his hands and he confessed to his actions. In his testimony he says “I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering from father from the tribulations he had lately suffered.” What we don’t know at the start of the book is who the other two victims are nor why he might have killed them. His former teacher describes him as an exceptionally intelligent boy who could have gone on to greater things but for his father’s insistence that he works on the land. Neighbours however describe him as a bit of an idiot, a lad who was always “wrong in the head.” Did he intend to kill or did he suffer a temporary loss of sanity, a form of moral insanity so that he is not responsible in law for his actions? The prison doctor and a criminologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, leading to some blackly funny dialogue about whether all murderers share common physical characteristics.
The book’s pretence at veracity is one of the pleasures of reading His Bloody Project. Along with that we have the presence of not just one, but several unreliable narrators to keep us wondering where truth lies. Add to the mix the fact Macrae brings into focus the hardships of life for poor crofting families in the Highlands of Scotland who have to scratch a living from impoverished soil, and you have a highly enjoyable reading experience. A minor niggle for me was the lucidity of Macrae’s testimony – he makes an apology at the outset for “the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style’ and then proceeds to turn in some fluid and perfectly grammatical prose. Even the schoolteacher’s assessment of the boy’s superior intellect didn’t convince me that a boy from such a poor background with little formal education beyond a village school could write so coherently. Overall it didn’t markedly spoil my enjoyment of what was in essence a well conceived and well executed novel that I highly recommend.
The Book: His Bloody Project was published in 2015 by the small independent publisher Saraband. It went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. Though it was considered an outsider because it fell into the genre of crime fiction (which isn’t a genre the Booker judges tend to select), it beat off strong competition to get onto the shortlist.
The Author: Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, Graeme Macrae Burnet worked for several years as an English teacher in Prague, Bordeaux, Porto and London, before returning to Glasgow and working for eight years for various independent television companies. His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (Contraband, 2014), received a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust. His Bloody Project is his second novel. His third is currently in progress.
Why I read this book: The day the Booker longlist was published I noticed this book was available an an e-version at a ridiculously low price so I bought it intending to read it before the shortlist announcement. I started it but got the impression it would be one of those books that has crucial information at the beginning so you need to keep turning back – which I find impossible to do on an e-reader. I requested a hard copy instead from the library but it arrived when I was out of the country and then I didn’t have time to read it so back it went unopened. But clearly the fates were determined I would read this because in February my sister turns up to visit me in hospital with a paperback copy, declaring “you really should read this.” Who could argue with that? So third time lucky for Mr Burnet…
We’re in the land of the Celts for our next country in The Insider’s Guide to literature from around the world. Our featured country is Scotland where our guide is Joanne who blogs at PortobelloBookBlog.
Let’s meet Joanne
A lot of people probably don’t realise that Edinburgh has a seaside as it is probably better known for tourist attractions such as Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace and the Royal Yacht Brittania.
I’ve always lived in Edinburgh though was born and brought up in Leith, now famous thanks to The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith or infamous thanks to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.
I’ve lived in Portobello for 18 years now and it is very much home. So a natural choice when I came to pick a blog name was Portobello Book Blog. My reading consists mainly of contemporary fiction, crime, thrillers and romance novels.
I run regular features where authors can answer a set of spotlight questions or write a guest post about their work. I also feature other book bloggers every Friday in my Blogger in the Spotlight feature. You can follow me on my blog or via my Twitter account @portybelle and my Facebook page.
Q. Do you enjoy novels set in your own country or do you feel authors don’t always do a good job of representing it in their fiction?
I do enjoy books set in Scotland. It’s always fun to read about a place you know really well and spot any changes that authors make.
In general I think authors represent Scotland well.
There are some books which are rather dark and depict a side of Scotland I might not like (reference Mr Welsh above!) but that’s not to say they’re not realistic.
I think what authors sometimes don’t do very well is incorporating a Scottish character in a book set elsewhere. Quite often I find they can be quite stereotypical having red hair and saying ‘och’ a lot! And really, we don’t tend to wear kilts these days except at weddings, graduations or other special events.
Top picks from Scottish literature
Q. Who are your favourite Scottish authors?
Oh this is a difficult question.
What makes an author Scottish – is it being born here, living here or writing books set here?
I do enjoy Ian Rankin’s books, Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie series are immensely entertaining and I think James Robertson is brilliant. Doug Johnstone is a local author who I think is terrific. I’ve enjoyed all his books, they are fast paced tense thrillers and he puts his characters is some awful situations!
Q. Are there any Scottish authors who are not quite as well-known but you think are up and coming or deserve more attention?
This is also a difficult question as I have been lucky enough to have been asked by lots of local authors to read their work. So they are well known to me but perhaps not to a wider audience.
This year I really enjoyed A Fine House in Trinity by Lesley Kelly, a crime novel which was longlisted for the William McIlvanney prize (previously called the Scottish Crime Book of the Year).
Helen MacKinven is an author writer whose novels Talk of the Toun and Buy Buy Baby are full of dark humour and are both excellent. She uses dialect quite a bit which gives her characters a really authentic voice.
I might have included Graeme Macrae Burnet had you asked me this a few weeks ago but since His Bloody Project was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, I think it’s fair to say he has a much higher profile these days. Other debut novelists I’ve read and enjoyed this year are Lesley Anderson, Jackie Baldwin, Stella Hervey Birrell, Shelley Day, Mary Paulson-Ellis
Q. Scotland seems to have made a mark when it comes to crime fiction with some really big hitters like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid. Any reasons you can think why the country is so successful in terms of crime genre?
Scotland has a bit of a reputation for ill health and hard crime and I think a lot of that comes from poverty.
As in so many areas, coal mining, the steel industry, the shipbuilding industry and the fishing industry have either vanished completely or employ dramatically fewer people. Low income and unemployment can lead to desperation and that’s when crime happens. I suspect that the dark nights and often dire weather also lead to a bit depression.
I’ve heard it said that Scots are hardened to cope with the climate and our often shocking sporting results, though Andy Murray is doing his bit to restore national pride! All these things combine to create a dark mentality which, in my friend’s words, ‘enjoys a good murder’!
But to balance that, Scotland is a country with stunningly beautiful countryside, picturesque lochs, magnificent mountains and islands and many authors make good use of this physical beauty in their work creating a more positive picture.
Q.We know about Nordic noir – is there such a thing as Scottish noir?
Tartan noir! I would say that Tartan Noir draws on Scotland’s traditions and history. There is often an element of good versus evil and the idea that there is a constant battle within each of us (like Jekyll and Hyde). Quite often the main characters are flawed and not always likeable. Then again, sometimes it’s the criminal who is drawn in a sympathetic way. That’s the Scottish contradiction for you!
The general mood can often be bleak and this can be mirrored by the weather or dark nights. Bloody Scotland is an annual crime festival celebrating crime writers from Scotland and beyond, which is growing bigger and more successful every year.
Not everyone likes the label ‘tartan noir’ though is it does somewhat reinforce the shortbread tin image of Scotland.
Q. Looking beyond crime, who are some of the classic Scottish authors?
Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Burns, Jessie Kesson, Neil Gunn, James Hogg are all writers I would consider classic Scottish authors. More recently I would include Nigel Tranter, Alasdair Gray, Muriel Spark, William McIlvanney, Norman MacCaig Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Morgan and Robin Jenkins.
Q. Which authors were required reading on the Scottish schools’ syllabus – people considered required reading?
My two daughters are in 4th and 6th year at High School just now and will both be taking exams in English at the end of the year.
Firstly, I have to say that I don’t think that pupils now have to read as much as I did when I was at school! I remember reading Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns although there was a lot of Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy too.
I’ve just had a look at the current list for National 5 and Higher level exams and they include James Robertson, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anne Donovan, Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy, Janice Galloway, Robert Burns and John Byrne. So a lot of what I studied some years ago is still there along with more modern Scottish authors. There are definitely more women writers on the list now which is good to see.
Scottish Literature: the authors
Here is the list of Scottish authors mentioned by Joanne.
- Graeme Macrae Burnet
- Ian Rankin
- Alexander McCall Smith
- Lewis Grassic Gibbon
- Robert Louis Stevenson
- Robert Burns
- Jessie Kesson
- Neil Gunn
- James Hogg
- Nigel Tranter
- Alasdair Gray
- Muriel Spark
- William McIlvanney
- Norman MacCaig
- Iain Crichton Smith
- Edwin Morgan
- Robin Jenkins
- Lesley Anderson
- Jackie Baldwin
- Stella Hervey Birrell
- Shelley Day
- Mary Paulson-Ellis
- Lesley Kelly
- Helen MacKinven
- Irvine Welsh
- Doug Johnstone