Reviewed by Harriet
Sebastian Faulks has called William Boyd ‘the finest storyteller of his generation’, and it’s hard to argue with that. The stories he tells are mostly those of people’s lives – for example, in Any Human Heart, and The New Confessions, his central character’s life was told from his earliest beginnings to his death. Love is Blind is not quite as comprehensive in that we only meet its protagonist, Brodie Moncur, when he’s a young man in his twenties, but from then on his remaining life and experiences are meticulously narrated. And what a fascinating story it is.
Like his author, Brodie is a Scot. As the novel begins, he’s living and working in Edinburgh, but his roots are in the countryside, where he was brought up as one of the large family (nine surviving children) of the popular Evangelical preacher Malky Moncur. Malky is by way of being a monster – his hell-fire sermons draw huge crowds but at home he is a tyrant and an alcoholic. Brodie has escaped owing to his talent for music – he hadn’t enough skill to become a concert pianist so, with his perfect pitch, he’s become a highly successful piano tuner. He’s working for Channon & Co., a firm of illustrious piano makers in Edinburgh, but his fortunes are about to change as he’s asked to move to France to become assistant manager of Channon’s Paris store.
Brodie takes to Paris like a duck to water – he learns French very easily and revels in French city life. And soon he has an idea that will take his company from mildly successful to hugely so. The plan is to persuade a well-known pianist to use a Channon piano – supplied to the pianists’s specification – in all his recitals in return for allowing his name to be used in the firm’s publicity. First to take up the offer is John Kilbarron (‘the Irish Liszt’), who takes a great liking to Brodie and engages him as his personal tuner and assistant for a protracted stay in St Petersburg. This is an attractive idea for Brodie, and not only for the handsome salary and the chance to get to know Russia. Primary is the fact that he has fallen passionately in love with beautiful Russian soprano Lika Blum, who happens to be Kilbarron’s mistress. The two manage to snatch moments together in the Russian countryside, but are finally discovered by Kilbarron’s unpleasant brother Malachi. Their is cover blown, and not only does Brodie’s employment come to an end but there’s a duel, with disastrous consequences, and Brodie has to leave Russia for good. He heads first of all for the south of France, where he and Lika manage to live a domestically idyllic life for some time. But on their trail is Malachi Kilbarron, who seems to have a fiendish ability to track them down wherever they go. The couple are finally forced to part, and Brodie begins a life of wandering, always able to find work but never happy because he pines desperately for Lika. Will he ever find her again?
Love is Blind, says the title, and Brodie certainly fails to discover things about Lika which are at the root of their separation. But if he’d known her full story, would he have loved her any less? Clearly not – this is an all-consuming passion and time and distance make no difference to it. So yes, this is a love story, but it’s also a story in which music plays a pivotal role. Brodie’s genius at piano tuning play an important part in his fortunes, both good and bad. There’s also a certain piece of music – a simple Scottish folk melody – in which a particular moment of unexpected change of key brings tears to the eyes of listeners, and this also turns out to be a crucial element in the plot. Then there’s Chekhov. Yes, the Russian dramatist appears obliquely here and there in the story – indeed Brodie appears to actually encounter him in Nice – a Russian doctor with a pointy beard with whom he has a brief conversation. Like Brodie, Chekhov suffered from tuberculosis, and at one time in his life was in love with a singer called Lika. The novel’s epigraph quotes Chekhov’s wife, Olga Knipper, who wrote that “During the last year of his life Anton thought of writing another play about a man who loves a woman who either does not love him or is unfaithful to him”. And towards the end of the novel Lika is described as ‘the lady with the little dog’, the title of a short story by Chekhov.
In a novel so full of riches on every page, whether you know or care about the Chekhovian interweavings doesn’t matter at all, though I can’t help feeling Boyd had fun with them. In the end the task of finding the influences on a writer, whether deliberate or accidental, may not be all that important. What is important is how well the novel works as a whole, and for me Love is Blind was immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
William Boyd, Love is Blind (Penguin Viking, 2018). 978-0241295939, 384pp., hardback.
Buy at the Book Depository (affiliate link)