Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Return of an old favourite

One of the problems with favourite novelists is that they never write books often enough. I've complained here before about Iain Banks, John Varley and Barbara Kingsolver (the latter of whom has only recently produced a novel after a 9 year gap!). But another writer who's been missing-in-action for some time, and who even appeared in my top ten list, is the British novelist William Boyd. To be fair, his last novel, Restless, wasn't anywhere near so dim-and-distant as Kingsolver's, but he could definitely do with putting pen to paper a little more often.

Ordinary Thunderstorms follows Adam Kindred, an ex-patriot climatologist returning to London in search of a job, and licking the self-inflicted wounds that ended his marriage in the US. Enjoying a celebratory meal after a promising interview at Imperial, he meets a fellow scientist, medical researcher Philip Wang. After Wang mistakenly leaves his briefcase in the restaurant, Kindred tries to return it, only to find the other man dying from a mortal stab wound. Panicking, Kindred flees the scene, but not before encountering, and assaulting, the shadowy figure of Wang's murderer. After sleeping rough for a night, Kindred attempts to report the crime to the police, but baulks when he finds that he himself is sought for the murder. Mindful of the incriminating circumstances he finds himself in, and fearful of the hitman sent after Wang, Kindred makes a fateful decision: to disappear into the ranks of London's homeless, and to cut all the ties with his previous life. His journey into the poverty-stricken underbelly of the city brings him into contact with a range of memorable characters and a slice of society he has never experienced before, and his continual shedding of the trappings of his previous existence sees him take on a succession of new identities. But, much as Kindred has suspected, powerful vested interests are still seeking him, and they are not averse at all at using force against the underclass he finds himself adrift among.

An interesting read this one. On one level, Ordinary Thunderstorms is a very successful and readable thriller-cum-social-commentary. Boyd leads the reader on a rich journey through London's overlooked underclass, and does so within the frame of an engagingly twisty plot. But on the other hand, the core decision of Kindred to evade both the police and Wang's murderer is one that's not entirely easy to swallow, but it's crucial to the subsequent twists and pivots of the plot. Boyd tries hard to make it seem a credible choice, but possibly because Kindred is still a "new" character to the reader, it rings a false note. As such, if one finds Kindred's choice completely understandable given the circumstances, then the novel is an entirely enjoyable romp, but if one judges this decision too implausible, and I almost did, the novel may feel a little contrived.

All that said, there's still a lot to like here. As usual, Boyd is great at conjuring up characters, settings and situations, and his prose is as engaging as ever. I particularly liked the attention that he lavished on the character of Ingram, the director of the pharmaceutical company that Wang works for. Though somewhat peripheral to the action of the novel, Boyd invests him with some wry oversights, and gives him a touching relationship with his gay son. Even the hitman character, Jonjo, is fleshed out into a more complete person than his role in the novel might otherwise have received. And Boyd doesn't let the plot follow an entirely predictable course. There are a few unexpected changes in direction along the way, including something of a realistic deflation of the action at the end. Were this a Hollywood production, Kindred would have some sort of climactic confrontation with an evil, moustache-twirling corporate monster, but here the pharmaceutical conspiracy unwinds in a modern fuzz of PR spin.

Since both Kindred and I are scientists, I can't help but comment on one niggling aspect of the plot. In spite of being in possession of Wang's research notes, and realising that Wang's murder may be related to his work, Kindred is extremely slow to go through these notes and piece together a motive for this crime. While this could be put down to Kindred's specialism as a climatologist and his unfamiliarity with medical research, Wang's findings of extra deaths among the test subjects taking the drug that he's working on are hardly esoteric results that only a trained eye could spot. In fact, anyone living in the west at any point in the last 50 years would, faced with the same facts as Kindred, readily join the dots, not least because they would be attuned to the "medical conspiracy" narrative that prevails in popular culture. However, after an initial skim-read that establishes the notes as medical science, Kindred instead takes his time in putting two and two together. If the notes contained opaque findings concerning chemical metabolism then things might be a little more plausible, but I found Kindred's late investigation into Wang's research more in the service of novel length than in the creation of a believable scientist character.

Overall, I must admit to being a little disappointed here. Usually Boyd is an entirely safe pair of hands, readily capable of novels that work in terms of character, plotting and verisimilitude (his Any Human Heart being a particular stand-out work). But here his plotting has slight but significant flaws, with the result that his solid work in character and scene-setting is short-changed. Of course, if Ordinary Thunderstorms were written by a lesser novelist, I might overlook the brief periods where my credulity was overstretched, but I've admired and enjoyed so many of Boyd's past novels that the bar is set pretty high. Still, whether one is a fan of Boyd or not, it still contains sufficient pleasures to justify picking up.

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