Fourteen stories in a third collection from the acclaimed British author (Any Human Heart, 2003, etc.).
Most of the tales are about the vanished past, opportunities lost, roads not taken. Several are formally experimental: e.g., a woman filmmaker’s efforts (in “Beulah Berlin, an A-Z”) to order her chaotic life—in 26 episodic segments, each beginning with a successive letter of the alphabet; and Oxford lecturer and writer Edward Scully’s envisioning (in “Adult Video”) of his real and imagined lives, structured according to a video-recorder’s functions (“Play,” “Pause,” “Fast-Forward,” etc.). Scully also appears in the title story, as the interviewer of a teenaged woman athlete, whose confident vigor politely mocks his own career and personal failures. Too many of these pieces feature artists, writers, and movie people: among them, a European auteur’s depressive musings, provoked by unrequited lust for his leading lady (“Notebook No. 9”); an Austrian prostitute’s brief encounter with young pianist “Hannes” Brahms (“Fantasia on a Favorite Waltz”); and a septuagenarian author’s distillation of his erotic memories into an X-rated filmscript (“The View from Yves Hill,” which is rather like a Louis Auchincloss story with sex). “The Woman on the Beach with a Dog” is a tepid imitation of Chekhov’s great (similarly titled) story; and “The Ghost of a Bird,” which describes a battlefield physician’s sympathetic treatment of a grievously wounded soldier (and writer), closely echoes Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Boyd offers more substantial fare in a taut disclosure (spoken by four narrators) of a spurned lover’s revelatory encounter with his old flame and her affable, sinister husband (“Incandescence”); and in the nicely imagined and detailed (though somewhat scattered) tale of a contemporary engineer’s possession by the ghost of a vengeful 19th-century inventor (“The Haunting”).
Thin stuff overall, though. One wonders whether most of these were ideas for unwritten novels.