The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd
I have read and enjoyed several of William Boyd's novels, but this is the first collection of short stories I have tried. It is excellent.
The stories and the characters who inhabit them are quirky and unusual. Many of them have been saddled with unusual names - obviously Bethany Mellmoth, but also Ludo Abernathy, Yves Hill and Raleigh Maltravers pop up from time to time. Some of the sleazy middle-aged men have an unpleasant flavour in the post #MeToo world. Ludo doesn’t think that just kissing women is a betrayal of his wife. Such information is “…out there, lurking in the darkness, beyond the firelight of his intelligence.”
I always enjoy the moment when seemingly unconnected stories suddenly spring a connection. Yves Hill appears first in a tale called 'Humiliation' set in the 1950s and then later in the story about Bethany that lends its name to the title of the book. At around 100 pages, the story of Bethany is more of a novella, and is wonderfully entertaining. Yves Hill has remained a writer through the intervening years and adds to the recurring theme of names by producing new titles for winds - a Bethany will stir your hair, while an Anselm will whip the hair up and a Hippolyte will lift sand and dirt from the ground.
There were two stories in particular that stuck in my mind from this collection. All are good but these were better than most. In ‘The Road Not Taken’ we skim backwards through a relationship, from the present unhappiness to happier times five years before and a further year earlier when the couple first met. I like this conceit because I like relationships that have a happy ending, not a horrible split up. Playing backwards to the start at least allows you to end on a note of pure hope for the future.
The final story, 'The Vanishing Game: An Adventure...' is just that, one big adventure that reads rather like the script for a movie. In fact, the central character is a bit part movie actor, Alec Dunbar, who has learned many survival tricks from the countless bit parts in his movies. In most he has ended up dead, and he nearly does so again, but this is just a great big rollicking adventure. Fun, foolish and fiendishly compulsive reading. It would certainly make a great film.
REVIEWER: Marcus Hobson