Five fictions: a William Boyd reading list

Monday, October 2, 2017 - 16:15

Fans of erudite pageturners, you are in for a huge treat if you’ve not yet ventured into the novels of William Boyd, the Scottish author, playwright, scriptwriter and director.

His books give us the chance to immerse ourselves in lives fully lived by memorable characters, reacting to the events of their times – to love, to heartbreak and to their all-too-human impulses, always with a very funny streak. With his latest volume of short stories, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmouth, about to published and ahead of what promises to be a fascinating talk from the author here at Southbank Centre on 6 November, we have put together a reading list of five of his books to get your William Boyd journey started.

Brazzaville Beach

Hope Clearwater, the character at the heart of Boyd’s 1990 novel, is an unforgettable heroine, never flinching from her own failings and unsentimental about the people in her life. From the relative calm of a beach house on the coast of Africa, she recounts navigating envy in academia, murderous chimpanzees, a civil war, ancient hedgerows and even marriage. Brazzaville Beach saw Boyd named the McVitie’s Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year and it also picked up the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1990.

a narrative fluency and clarity of design that rewards and deserves attention
London Review of Books on Brazzaville Beach

Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay

Boyd won rave reviews for his 2014 novel about a photo-journalist whose work takes her from Berlin in the 1930s and a stint doing fashion photography to wars in France and Vietnam and finally a quiet coastal cottage in Scotland in the 1970s. The book is peppered with 73 photographs, ranging from Clay’s youth to her war years and beyond. In a recent interview with Southbank Centre, William Boyd talked about sourcing the images that ended up appearing in Sweet Caress.

William Boyd on sourcing photographs

Ordinary Thunderstorms

Corrupt pharmaceutical executives and London’s criminal underclass meet in this 2009 thriller with a literary bent. It tells the story of Adam Kindred, a divorced climatologist who unwittingly becomes involved in a murder and must go on the run with some incriminating evidence about the safety of a soon-to-be-released drug. Metatextual fans: Ordinary Thunderstorms references Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and its imaginary country of Zembla, in the name of the disputed drug Zembla-4. Pale Fire is one of Boyd’s favourite books – he has read it upwards of eight times.

The New Confessions

An obsession with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Les Confessions weaves its way through the life of the protagonist of Boyd’s fourth novel, which was published in 1987. Written as an autobiography, it begins with unhappy adolescent John James Todd running away from home, making his way to the Western Front, working for a stint as a propaganda filmmaker and then becoming a prisoner of war. Todd eventually makes a career as a Hollywood director before running into trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee, accused of communist sympathies. By turns funny and heartbreaking The New Confessions was called a ‘magnificent feat of story-telling and panoramic reconstruction’ by The Observer.

Any Human Heart

Probably Boyd’s most famous book, Any Human Heart is a novel in the form of the private journals of Logan Mountstuart, spanning from the beginning to the end of the 20th century. The glamour of meeting historical figures like Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and Ian Fleming mixes with the mundanity of poverty and the heartbreak of loss, and although there is something painfully vain about Logan, he is also a hugely moving character. Any Human Heart was adapted into a BAFTA-winning series in 2011 by Channel 4 with Sam Claflin, Matthew Macfadyen and Jim Broadbent taking on the role of Logan through the years, and with a script by William Boyd.

Astonishing, touching, extremely funny. A brilliant evocation of a past era and an immensely readable story
Daily Telegraph on Any Human Heart

William Boyd talks us through his bookshelves looking at the works he often turns to, and recent novels whih have caught his eye in William Boyd's Book Club.

watch William Boyd's Book Club