Having recently read and enjoyed Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd, I checked to see how many of his books I have read. I’ve been a fan from the beginning and have read everything from the first, A Good Man in Africa in 1981 to Brazzaville Beach in 1990. Then there’s a gap between Brazzaville Beach and Any Human Heart in 2002. So, this year I plan to read the books in the intervening years. First up is The Blue Afternoon. Published in 1993 and winner of the ‘Sunday Express Book of the Year’ and the ‘Los Angeles Book Prize for Fiction’, I had no idea of its subject. Boyd is like Rose Tremain, no book is like any other. Every one is an adventure.
The first part, set in Los Angeles in 1936, suggests this is the story of a battle between two arguing architects. But it turns into something rather different. When Kay Fischer visits the site of her latest project, a perfectly proportioned house on a sloping site at 2265 Micheltorino, she notices an elderly man. Later at home, the same man pays her a visit and announces that he is her father. He asks for her help, to track down a person called Paton Bobby. He doesn’t explain why.
This is the story of Dr Salvador Carriscant’s life as a surgeon in Manila at the turn of the 20th century, a story also of murder, love, friendship and the building of an early flying machine. In 1902, Carriscant is a celebrated surgeon at the San Jeronimo hospital, a pioneer of the antiseptic methods of Joseph Lister. Meanwhile his anaesthetist, Pantaleon Quiroga, is building a flying machine in his nipa barn. Both are obsessives. When Carriscant falls in love, his obsession turns from surgery to Delphine Sieverance, the married object of his fantasies. This atmosphere of contentment and positivity is shattered when Paton Bobby, the local chief of police, asks Carriscant to attend the body of a murder victim. When the victim is identified as an American soldier, the case becomes political. The country is now ruled by the US after the recent Philippine-American war but guerrilla groups are active in rural areas. There is prejudice against the locals, suspicion of the Americans, poverty, ex-pat aristocracy and exploitation, but this is also a time of dynamic advances at the beginning of a new century.
Not Boyd’s best book but enjoyable none the less. There are slow passages where Boyd’s enthusiasm for the description of tiny details goes too far. In places I could have done with less technical information about architecture, surgery and the aerodynamics of flying. The story really gets going in the second, and largest section, set in Manila. The first and third parts in 1936 are almost irrelevant bookends and some of the final explanations stretch credibility.
But my, Boyd does write beautifully. ‘Inland, continents of dark plum-grey clouds were building, threatening the rain that João had promised, while out west, over the Atlantic, the afternoon sun shone with that silvery flinty brilliance you find over big oceans, light reflecting back from the huge expanse of shifting waters.’ And in an instant, I was sitting there too, a glass of cold, yellow wine in my hand.
BUY THE BOOK
My copy of The Blue Afternoon is a used, signed hardback, the Sinclair-Stevenson edition, with a rather lovely cover. Here are my reviews of other books by William Boyd:-
ANY HUMAN HEART
LOVE IS BLIND
THE DREAMS OF BETHANY MELLMOTH
WAITING FOR SUNRISE
… and try the first paragraph of ARMADILLO.
If you like this, try these:-
‘Islands of Mercy’ by Rose Tremain
‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx
‘The Gustav Sonata’ by Rose Tremain
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE BLUE AFTERNOON by William Boyd #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5rC via @SandraDanby