William Boyd is one of those writers that I return to with enthusiasm from time to time, and who rarely disappoints. I have happy memories of Brazzavile Beach (1990), Any Human Heart (2002) and Sweet Caress (2015), to name but three from his back catalogue of 14 novels.
The title of his latest, Love Is Blind, has a reassuring Boydian ring about it, implying as it does that love causes us to blunder about in the dark, uncertain of where we are going or how we will end up. Which is very much the case for Brodie Moncur, his latest protagonist.
When the novel opens in 1894, Brodie is a piano tuner working for piano makers Channon & Co in Edinburgh. He has escaped his large family and hell-fire preacher father, a heavy drinking and foul-mouthed brute of a man whose character is at complete odds with his “calling”. Brodie earns a modest living but clearly possesses far more ability and initiative than is demanded by his role within the company. And so it is that he is sent to Paris to sort out the underperformance of Chanon & Co’s operation there, run by Mr Chanon’s ineffective and hostile son.
But before whisking us off to Paris, Boyd has us mesmerised by the intricacies of Brodie’s craft: “Now all the moving parts were visible beyond the black and white keys – the hammers, the rockers, the jacks, the whippens, the dampers – its innards were exposed like a clock with its back off or a railway engine dismantled in a repair shed. Mysteries – music, time, movement – were reduced to complex, elaborate mechanisms. People tended to be fascinated.”
In addition to maintenance and tuning, Brodie is able to modify a piano to a particular pianist, weighting keys with tiny strips of lead to alter finger pressure, sanding down hammer heads and employing little tricks of the trade that make him indispensable in the concert hall.
Boyd writes beautifully about Brodie’s skills and his extensive knowledge of his craft, singing a quiet hymn to the high level of skill in what might first appear a routine profession.
In Paris, Brodie hits upon what must be an early case of celebrity endorsement. If, he argues, concert pianists of renown could be incentivised to play Chanon pianos at their recitals, Chanon would begin to compete with the likes of Steinway. After several dead ends, he manages to sign up John Kilbarron, “the Irish Liszt”, a virtuoso whose declining health and increasing drink problem make Brodie’s constant attentions a necessity.
And it is through John Kilbarron that Brodie meets the love of his life, Lika Blum, a Russian soprano struggling to make any impact in the world of professional opera, partner to John Kilbarron and with a past that is, shall we say, somewhat hazy.
When Brodie agrees to go on tour with Kilbarron, it is not difficult to predict that complications will follow. And so it proves. But love is indeed blind, and Brodie, who is now suffering from tuberculosis, goes stumbling on until disaster threatens to overwhelm both him and Eva. If “love is blind” is a cliche, then so too is “the path of true love never did run smooth”; but neither is less true for being a cliché.
I have to say that I very much enjoyed Love Is Blind. Brodie and Eva are involved in a grand passion that sweeps them and everything else before them as the novel moves its setting from Paris to St Petersburg, to Nice, Switzerland, and the Andaman Islands. This is picaresque in feeling as our hero by turns evades compromising situations, escapes traps, flees in the face of danger and then himself seeks retribution and revenge. To say more would be to spoil the plot, so I will refrain. Safe to say, though, that there is never a dull moment in a novel never short of spirited incident.
Boyd is a very accomplished novelist so it is unsurprising to find immaculate research, a host of intriguing characters, both principal and secondary, and a gripping plot. For me the earlier stages of the book were the most impressive and to my surprise, having long decided that too many contemporary novels have too many pages, I found myself wanting more from the final sections, which seemed to get shorter and shorter. I also very much enjoyed the quiet precision of Boyd’s writing and being able to relax into the embrace of a book that clearly knew what it was doing and where it was going.
I have written a lot about Brodie but little about Lika Blum and in truth she is something of an enigma. She is blond and beautiful, certainly, but that in itself is insufficient to explain Brodie’s passion. Or is it? Who knows why we are attracted to some people and not to others? Who knows why we fall in love, only to wreck our lives on random rocks? Happenstance. Luck. Call it what you will, Boyd is a good guide to the human heart, even if our only conclusion is that love is indeed blind.
Love Is Blind
Author: William Boyd