Set on a Greek island, a cultural foundation is preparing for the biggest event in its year at which renowned academic Dr Norman Wilfred is due to give the keynote speech. Also heading to the island on the same plane is Oliver Fox, a morally vacant but charming Lothario, who has arranged an assignation with a girl who he has met for only five minutes but has invited to spend a week with him at the villa that he was due spend a week with his ex-girlfriend before she threw him out. But when the girl send to collect Dr Wilfred from the airport, Nikki, turns out to be irresistibly charming Oliver decides to play the role of Dr Wilfred and follow her to the foundation while the real Dr Wilfred, minus luggage is transported to the villa at the other end of the island. Someone still has to give the speech though - will it be the real Dr Wilfred or the fake Dr Wilfred?
As you will have gathered this has all the ingredients for a good, old-fashioned farce. Michael Frayn is as well placed as anyone to explore this now somewhat neglected genre, having written the superb farce play "Noises Off" as well as the screenplay for the John Cleese vehicle "Clockwise". The question remains as to whether the farce genre can work as successfully as a comic novel. Frayn is very far from a one genre practitioner but it's hard to think of any modern writer who is as well versed in the nuances of farce. If anyone can pull it off, it is going to be him.
However, not even a writer of Frayn's undoubted gifts can get quite get this to work successfully. Having said that, it would make a fine holiday read - it's light, easy reading with pleasant doses of humour, although even here, the ending is likely to prove a little disappointing.
There are innumerable challenges a farce writer faces. One of these is that in an age of modern communications, the situations that farce relies upon of misunderstanding are just so unlikely as to seem quaint. Thus, Frayn spends much time explaining why mobile phones aren't working - dead batteries, no charger, thrown in pool etc. Farce also relies on a certain suspension of belief that works fine in a theatre or a cinema where the time period is finite. Although this is a fairly light book, it's not a one-sitting read and this makes it more difficult to sustain this disbelief for the duration.
It's almost wholly lacking in characterisation too and what there is consists of lightly drawn, cliché stereotypes. Again this isn't a problem so much with say a film, but detracts from a book. Much as you might thoroughly enjoy the film "Clockwise", try explaining it to someone who hasn't seen it and conveying the same enjoyment. It's simply impossible without the visual input provided by, in this case Cleese. So too "Skios" seems to need actors to bring these characters to life. Here we have two taxi drivers who are always mistaken for each other - on screen this could be a nice running gag, but here it's just too predictable and obvious.
For all that, Frayn is a master of his art and maintains a pace that is impressive as disaster follows disaster and the plot development is admirably complicated. As you would expect given his experience in screen writing and play writing he has a good ear for dialogue, but the descriptions verge on tired and cliché at several points. To some extent expectations are unfairly raised by the book's inclusion on this year's Booker list. It's not Frayn's fault that he is nominated but it's far from his best literary work. For that, check out "Spies" or "Headlong".
As a holiday read, I'd recommend it with a warning that the ending might disappoint (although with such a build up it's difficult to live up to a satisfying ending). As a Booker nominee though, it's not even Frayn's best work and far from one of the twelve best novels of the year in my view. It would, though, make a pleasingly entertaining movie one feels.