Somewhere between The Magus and Philippa Gregory's Virgin Earth comes this strange, wide-ranging, dazzling, part-historical part-modern father-quest cum family memoir. Mired just as strongly in magic realism as historical accuracy, Boyle's funny, tragic, sprawling familial epic ties up neatly at the end - just in time before my brain burst from trying to keep track of who was who (and when!). Good old fashioned storytelling, with a sensibility that could only be modern, and a great sense of fun throughout.
That World's End is still in print bears witness to the quality of Boyle's other novels, especially The Tortilla Curtain. That said, there is much quaintness to being plunged back in the 1980s (World's End was published in 1987).
One is shocked how much literary canons have changed in so short a time. Fashion is now for stripped-down writing, dogged focus on plot, close identification with the protagonist, all of it leavened with quantities of technical information (to show the writer has done 'research'). Back then was the era of John Irving, of Latin American magical realism, of Robertson Davies and his sagas. What was in vogue was writing about roots, parallel modern and historical plotlines. And this is what we have in World's End. The Van Brunts battle it with the Van Warts, in alternating chapters, in the same New England rural community, in the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. The plots are convoluted, but involve the same struggle for land among more-or-less the same families, plus the marginalized Indians. Indeed, there is a Back to the Future (to stay with the 1980s) flavour to World's End, a comical side to its double characterisation and storyline. And magic, of course, is also involved. The little narrative detours, the useless ornamentation, the baroque detail that are so passé refresh as well as irritate, they are to be savoured when they are not skipped over. World's End is too long, but it is readable if not a classic.
Finally, there is a socialist streak in Boyle. The Van Brunts bear the brunt, while the rich Van Warts have all the warts; it's that simple. The poor are oppressed but kind at heart, the rich are selfish, narrow-minded, and obsessive. Sometimes they reject their background and, by joining the oppressed, become goodies. More often they find stooges and traitors among the poor, whose only exit is in revolution. It doesn't bother me, but it does constrain the range of outcomes to the storyline.