`Morgan smiled and raised his own glass. "I hate you, you smug bastard!" he screamed inwardly. "You shit, you little turd, you've ruined my life!" but all he said was, "Congratulations. She's a fabulous girl. Lovely. Lucky chap".'
The first lines of William Boyd's first book A Good Man in Africa give a good clue to the humour, attraction and beautiful style of his books. A former academic and columnist of the New Statesman, now in his forties, the early potential has not been disappointed. He has written six excellent novels and a collection of short stories dealing with such issues as colonialism, war, dislocation and disappointed aspirations. Not one of them is easy to put down once you have started.
A Good Man in Africa describes the inner frustrations of Leafy Morgan, first secretary to the Deputy High Commissioner of Kinjanja, West Africa. Morgan is the great under achiever. Desperate to succeed with the Commissioner's daughter and in his work, he is always destined to fail. We share Leafy Morgan's humiliation and anger at every turn especially when he has to undergo examination for sexual diseases by his Calvinist doctor. The theme of circumstances being against us runs through all of Boyd's novels and allows for an enormous amount of pathos.
A Good Man In Africa won several literary awards in 1981 for best first novel. It was followed by his most acclaimed work, An Ice Cream War, which also draws on his upbringing in Ghana and Nigeria. As the title suggests the story is about the futility of war. The First World War has ended in Europe with Armistice but no one has bothered to tell the armies in East Africa. The war continues there for a further three weeks with tragic results for the characters involved.
My favourite is The New Confessions. John James Todd is an ambitious film maker. He learns his trade in the First World War where, in miserable conditions and while being shot at, he tries to shoot the perfect footage. Todd disapproves of the deceitful propaganda methods of the renowned Harold Faithfull, author of `How I Film War and Battle'. The irony is that in his careerist enthusiasm Todd is just as oblivious to the bodies falling around him and the interests of the censors who cut his film to pieces:
`I panoramed slowly right to left, left to right. Little men moving almost drugged slowness, some upright, some crouched, some dropping down. An irregular flattish skyline, some puffs of white smoke. Here was battle. It was the best and most authentic battle sequence filmed in the entire First World War search your archives for something superior.'
Todd has a lifelong dream to make a world famous picture, an epic drama of Rousseau's life. He returns to the project at different times in his life Tempting as it is, I cannot spoil the ending.
Hope Clearwater in Brazzaville Beach is Boyd's one strong female character. She is a researcher who has decided to retreat to a primate research camp in Africa. There is a superb contrast of mood in this book which makes it a gripping read.
Clearwater's work involves patient observation of a chimpanzee family in the bush detailing minute changes of behaviour. During the hours spent locating the chimpanzees she has time to reflect on the mistakes in her own life. Meanwhile she witnesses the unpredictable and savage nature of the subjects of her research, her `competitor' researcher and the civil war going on in the country around her.
Boyd's most recent novel The Blue Afternoon has two sub plots running in tandem. Kay Fischer is an architect struggling to make it in America in the 1930s. Her long lost father, Salvador Carriscant, re-enters her life asking her to help him resolve a mystery in his past. There is a clever contrast in time between Kay's desperate thoughts about her future and the exploration into her father's past.
The two characters live in very different circumstances; Salvador is a doctor in an underdeveloped country, the Philippines, working with the most basic facilities, while Kay uses the most modern of techniques in her designs for new buildings in America. Both settings are excellently portrayed. The economic depression of the 1930s is always in the background as in F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Unfortunately the device Boyd uses to bring his two characters together is not quite credible, which makes this his most disappointing book. Nevertheless, it is good stuff.
Stars and Bars is Boyd's funniest novel. If you are a reserved Englishman who has been to America you will immediately identify with Henderson Dores and the embarrassment he suffers.
Boyd's writing distinguishes him from someone like Tom Sharpe because it is more substantial. He takes tremendous care researching the lifestyles and expertise of his main characters. How the soldier, film maker, primatology researcher, doctor and architect (in The Blue Afternoon) physically carry out their job are described in detail. This makes for a riveting read and the characters become more real. Boyd also writes about sex in the most exotic yet unexploitative way I have ever read. It is also very accurate, as in The Blue Afternoon:
`Philip's thigh was still warm against mine. Too warm. I moved further away from him, very slowly, shifting myself along the mattress until I felt the moistness on my flank begin to cool...I spread my fingers and the tips touched a damp patch on the mattress his semen, I supposed, and immediately my mind turned to the banal routines of housekeeping, of needing now to change my sheets even though they had been on the bed bare;y a day...'
Boyd produces a novel every two years. If you want something to settle down to after the turkey this xmas, pick up one of Boyd's books.