When a new novel by William Boyd features a male protagonist, my first thought ‘is it another Logan Mountstuart’ with a feeling of anticipation. But Love is Blind is not another version of Any Human Heart. It tells the story of Brodie Moncur, a young Scottish piano tuner who travels Europe as he seeks warmer climes and the love of his life.
Boyd is on good form and I raced through Love is Blind, enveloped in Brodie’s end of 19thcentury/early 20thcentury story. Told almost exclusively from Brodie’s viewpoint, plus some of the letters he writes and receives, we see the world and the people he meets through his eyes so, as he falls in with thieves the sense of impending doom increases. He is a likeable, believeable character, son of a fire-and-brimstone alcoholic preacher, living in a time of great change as motor cars appear on the road and the signs of war increase but when consumption kills. The details of Brodie’s piano tuning are fascinating, these skills are the passport to his travels, getting him into and out of trouble, enabling him to earn money wherever he finds himself.
When the story starts in 1894 Brodie is a piano tuner for Channon & Co in Edinburgh. Offered a job at the Channon shop in Paris, he takes the opportunity to escape his oppressive father and so falls in with John Kilbarron, a fading Irish concert pianist who comes to rely on Brodie’s magical skills with his tuning tools. The major difficulties of Brodie’s story are established in Paris. He falls in love with Lika Blum, would-be Russian opera singer, who may or may not be in a relationship with Kilbarron. And he starts to cough up blood.
Consumption is diagnosed and Brodie travels to Nice in search of a warmer climate, unable to work, leaving Lika behind. From the beginning, Brodie pursues Lika rather than the other way round, she insists on secrecy and is enigmatic when pressed for details of her earlier life. Warning signs that are obvious to the reader but to which Brodie is blind, the blindness of the title, are everywhere. Lika does not share many secrets and there is no authorial voice to fill in her backstory. He is a young man in love/lust and cannot see what seems to be staring him in the face. He writes a succession of letters which, given the need for secrecy, are foolhardy. So when trouble finds him, in the shape of Kilbarron’s thuggish brother Malachi, it is not a surprise.
The character of Lika is lightly drawn but that is perhaps because Brodie knows so little about her. They arrange assignations in hotel rooms and on riverbanks, passing notes to each other and sharing significant glances. The affair continues as the Kilbarron party moves to St Petersburg, Russia, to perform a programme for a new wealthy benefactor. It is here that the cracks start to appear in the Kilbarron/Moncur relationship.
The final part of the book was less satisfactory for me. The Prologue to the story is a short letter written in 1906 by a woman called Page from an address in the Andaman Islands, Indian Empire, in which Brodie Moncur is briefly mentioned. In Part VII, Brodie is living at Deemer’s Hotel, Port Blair, the Andamans. I found his encounter with ethnologist Page Arbogast and their research trip to the Nicobar Islands superfluous.
‘Love is Blind’ by William Boyd [UK: Viking]
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