Saturday, January 29, 2011

Book Review - Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury 2010)

William Boyd's books seem to follow intermittent themes. First there were the books picking out eclectic passages from Africa where he was born - A Good Man in Africa exploring colonial life and An Ice Cream War following the little-known engagements in East Africa during World War One. Brazzaville Beach demonstrated his ability to engage on deeper themes, as it explored Chaos theory and the parallels between aggressive behaviour in Chimpanzees and in humans. It was one of three ambitious middle novels - the others being The New Confessions and Any Human Heart, the life-stories of characters involved in movie-making and Art Criticism respectively - which seemed to set him out as one of our most important chroniclers.

Yet, latterly, his attention seems to have focussed on a series of less-weighty but intelligent and finely-crafted thrillers. His last book, Restless, was a page-turning tale of espionage and duplicity set during the second world war, and his latest novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, has many parallels with Armadillo, his highly-successful TV adapted work of 1998, both being set in London and featuring the quirky hero being pitched into a dark and dangerous world of greed and violence.

Ordinary Thunderstorms is the story of Adam Kindred, a research climatologist who, through no fault of his own, on the run in London pursued by the Police, a multinational pharmaceutical company and a psychopathic hit-man. He joins the ranks of the homeless and has to rely on his wits and London's underclasses in order to stay alive and to clear his name.

Boyd's main interest seems to be the extent to which a man can disappear in a City like London, and then recreate an identity which allows him to recreate a new life. Kindred drops out of sight by living rough, switching off his mobile phone and not using credit cards. Vladimir obtains a dead man's passport, and through that a credit card and a job. Turpin has multiple wives and lifes. Mhouse has simply changed her name. Kindred becomes successively John1603 and Primo Belem.

Undoubtedly, this is a taut, exciting thriller which engages the reader from the start to an extent that belief in the improbabilities of the plot to be - as is traditional in the genre - suspended. The biggest improbability is in the basic premise, that an intelligent lawabiding citizen when confronted by a body in a room and a hitman in pursuit of him should decide that the best course of action is to sleep rough in Chelsea. Once one has come to terms with this, it is a small step to believe in Kindred's unlikely romances, the fortunate death of Vladimir and only a small leap to find credible the excesses that a multinational pharmaceutical company would go to to ensure a profitable drugs launch.

Boyd as ever writes with style and economy. If Ian McEwan were to introduce a research climatologist as main character, then by the end of the novel we would be fully immersed in the vocabulary of the profession. Boyd, however, limits himself to making some passing references to cloud formations and an explaination of the title of the novel. Vocabulary - apart from a passing reference to borborygi (stomach rumbles to you and me) - is generally stripped down. He can't resist his occassional authorly jokes, however. Drugs company head Ingram Fryzer shares his name with the murderer of Christopher Marlow. Zembla appears in Nabokov's Pale Fire and John 1603 is the most quoted verse in the bible.

Yet for all its pace and elegance of execution, one cannot help thinking that Boyd is writing well within himself. It is as if he has set himself a target of dashing off a genre thriller with certain stylistic parameters. It is well-written and enjoyable as all William Boyd novels are. The plot twists, whilst not always believable, are always satisfying. The picture of London's underclass is as threatening as that of the drugs companies is improbable. The denouement is neat. It would make a great film, and Boyd is an accomplished screenwriter so he might have had this in mind. But that's for the pension fund - one can't help think that William Boyd is still capable of much more significant works than this.

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