Into the blue

William Boyd has established himself as the master of the intellectual page-turner, and his new novel, an ambiguous tale of murder, surgery and life-affirming love, is no exception, as Sue Wilson discovered.

Achieving a satisfying balance between page-tuming narrative pull and engaging intellectual substance is an all too rare literary feat. which is why the publication of each new novel by William Boyd. long since a proven master of that particular juggling-act. is such an eagerly-awaited event. His latest book. The Blue Afternoon. will only bolster that reputation. Pan love-story. pan murder-mystery. part teasingly earnest metaphysical meditation, it employs a plot which must rank among his most gripping and ingenious yet. to further his ongoing exploration of the various orderly and disruptive forces which shape and buffet human existence.

It’s one of those novels about which you don‘t want to give too much away. as the twists and unexpected reversals in the storyline provide a large proportion of its pleasures. The main protagonists are Kay Fischer. a young Los Angeles architect whom we meet in 1936 after the death of her baby son and the breakdown of her marriage. as she is struggling to go it alone in business following her partner’s treacherous desertion. and Salvador Carriscant. an elderly Scots/Spanish/Filipino former surgeon who tums up almost literally on her doorstep one day. claiming to be her father. Their encounter leads them. eventually. to Lisbon. by way of a long narrative diversion to Manila in 1902. through which we learn of Carriscant's extraordinary history. central to which is a love-affair of fateful intensity. a series of bizarre murders and the bitter professional rivalry between him and the other surgeon at the hospital where he works.

The novel‘s surgical theme is one of its key sites for the conflict between order and chaos Carriscant is a pioneer of asepsis in the Operating theatre. yet his scientific rigour still wars against huge ignorance of the body's complexities and of disease. ‘It was really meeting and talking to surgeons that got this book off the ground. because they‘re such obsessive. driven people. with the most monstrous egos. and I just realised what an extraordinary world they inhabit.’ explains Boyd. whose last bestseller. Brazzaville Beach. won the 1991 McVitie Prize. ‘l‘m intrigued by that kind of personality anyway. and then the more I read. the more I realised that the profession has only just become respectable in the last century. There was one man 1 spoke to about being a surgeon at the turn of the century. and he said he couldn‘t have gone into work every day and killed people. which is what they did patients died like flies so your temperament had to be even more steely and resistant then.‘

Among The Blue Afternoon‘s most intriguing features is its own refusal to order and explain

everything within the world it creates: set up like a mystery. or. rather. at least two mysteries (Carriscant’s identity. and that ofthe murderer). it narrows to the point where you think all is about to be revealed. then suddenly opens out again. leaving a multitude of unanswered or half-answered questions. ‘That‘s a comment on art. if you like. especially novels. because the thing about art is that you are playing God. you control that universe. and you can

reward the innocent. which is totally unlike life.‘ Boyd says. ‘In this case the ambiguity is very deliberate. One friend of mine phoned up and said. “okay. who did it?" and i honestly don‘t know. I have my own suspicions. but I deliberately didn‘t 3 figure it out in such a way that there was an answer. ; because it's absolutely to do with the idea that these i patterns don’t emerge neatly. they're much harder to

decode and figure out.‘ g Ultimately. the novel is a compelling. moving declaration of faith in the redemptive and

compensatory power of love. its ability to provide a I different. truer kind of order in the face of recurrent 3 human failure to impose predictable structures or 3 systems on life. In both her professional and personal life. Kay. hurt and disappointed by love, is a devotee of discipline as an architect she espouses a particularly austere aesthetic and yet it is with Carriscant. whose life, on the surface. has been wrecked by his pursuit of love. that Boyd clearly hopes we will empathise.

‘I wanted very much. in spite of everything else, to write along Larkin’s line. ‘what will survive of us is love’. about that passion and that emotion.’ he

l" '." William Boyd: ‘Vlitti knowledge at uncertainty you 3'8 WWW“. in 8 VII"

do anything you want you can punish the guilty and

explains. ‘Kay is somebody who is trying to control and order her life. which a lot of us think we can do. that there's a pattern you can impose on life through diligence and effon. but in fact life nearly always defeats our best intentions. There's something fulfilled about Carriscant he seems to have had the most disastrous three-score-years-and-ten. but at the end Kay envies him. because through this incredible story and all this messiness. these extraordinary events and so on. there is this constant sustained note in his life which she recognises. and recognises that it hasn't really existed in her own life.‘

So is Boyd saying. in the end. that disorder is something we should embrace? ‘Not so much embrace it as recognise that it‘s there. because if you recognise it then there are other certainties. or other consolations available to you. As soon as you realise that there's nothing you can do. in a way. then you can look for other certainties. one of which comes from being human in this capacity to love another human being. which in a funny way is a form of resistance to the chaotic forces that are swirling around you. With knowledge of uncertainty you are empowered. in a way. you know the universe is like that. so you place your faith in things that are. . . not impervious. exactly. but essentially unaffected by war. upheaval. pestilence whatever comes your way.’

The Blue Afternoon is published by Sinclair- Stevenson on September 13 at £14.99.

William Boyd will be giving readings and signing copies of The Blue Afternoon in Glasgow and Edinburgh between September I7 and 20. See Events listings for details.

70 The List 10-23 September 1993