Top positive review
Spies and lies...
on 4 August 2015
When young actor Lysander Rief consults an eminent psychiatrist in pre-WW1 Vienna about a problem, Dr Bensimon introduces him to the concept of parallelism. A technique developed by the good doctor himself, the idea is to identify the event at the root of a problem and then to invent an alternative history of the event, embellishing and repeating it until it feels like a truer memory than the thing that actually happened. And this book feels like an exercise in parallelism itself – a hazy, shimmering story that seems just a little unreal, a little off-kilter. As Lysander gets sucked into the shadowy world of spies and espionage, it all feels like a bit of a game – an adventure. And despite some dark moments, it continues to feel like that all the way through, as if Lysander is playing a role in one of the great spy thrillers of the past. There are scenes that reminded me of The Third Man, with shadowy figures hiding in alleyways, and the characters, with the exception of Lysander himself, feel like representations of fictional 'types' rather than real people – the mysterious femme fatale, the traitor, the manipulative spymaster, etc.
Lysander's little problem is of course sexual, arising from an excruciatingly embarrassing (but very funny) episode in his youth. Encouraged by Dr Bensimon, he keeps a journal which forms part of the narrative, allowing the reader to see the world through his eyes. Coincidentally, it's at Dr Bensimon's office that he first meets Hettie, the woman who will firstly help cure his problem, and then be instrumental in creating the situation that later forces him into the world of spying. And coincidentally, the man who will be his spymaster also first meets Lysander in the doctor's waiting room. All of these coincidences, and the many others that follow, are hardly coincidental though. Even Lysander begins to wonder eventually why everyone he meets seems to be something other than they appear at first sight.
The book is about deception, self-deception and lies. And that deception extends to the reader too. There are elements of the plot that are almost farcical in their unlikeliness, and dark moments that are glossed over with such subtle humour that sometimes it takes a moment or two to decide just how seriously they should be taken. Looking at reviews of the book tells me some people have taken it completely seriously and are therefore complaining about credibility issues, especially with the ending. And they may be right. But my perception of the whole thing is that it's a frothy construct, a parallel to the truly dark stories of wartime espionage, something imagined to shape the world in the way that Lysander wants. Having learned from Dr Bensimon how to obliterate unpleasant truths from his mind, it seems to me that the book extends this idea – so, bad things happen but Lysander, and the reader, choose not to dwell on them. It feels as if a false memory is being created as the reader watches, and to a degree the reader has to agree to be complicit in its creation.
As always with Boyd, the writing is eminently readable – smooth, flowing, neither forced nor artificial, but with a lovely use of language. There is a lot about sex in the book, but it's not at all graphic or icky (yes, I still haven't got those scenes in Birdsong out of my head) – instead it takes the route of gentle mockery, highlighting the more ridiculous side of the act. Lysander is a great character, self-absorbed, self-deceiving, but fundamentally a good guy with a too-trusting nature and a kind of relaxed, go where the wind blows him attitude that makes him a pleasure to spend time with. Boyd is rarely laugh out loud funny, but I love the way he keeps a layer of gentle humour simmering beneath the surface, lightening the tone and keeping the reader slightly off-balance. He's one of those authors who can be off-form from time to time, but when he's on form, as he is in this one, there are few writers I enjoy more. Highly recommended.