William Boyd’s 15th novel begins well enough. In 1894 Edinburgh, a 24-year-old piano tuner is promoted to the Paris branch of the firm he works for. Boyd is good on the inner workings of the piano: ‘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.’
Brodie Moncur, the tuner in question, is possessed of perfect pitch and a fine sensibility which places him at odds with the brutal household of his tyrannical father and nine siblings (his mother has died in childbirth). The early domestic scenes possess real menace — Brodie’s 17-year-old sister Isabella won’t stand up to their father, as ‘He still belts me when he’s roused’, and it’s a shame the Moncurs don’t appear more often.
In Paris, Brodie persuades a pianist called John Kilbarron, ‘the Irish Liszt’, to play his firm’s pianos in concert for a price, thus ensuring the company’s fame. He also meets Kilbarron’s lover, a beautiful Russian soprano called Lika Blum and the pianist’s alarming brother-manager, Malachi. Brodie’s need to escape Malachi ultimately replaces his compulsion to escape his own father and it also provides the narrative engine for the piano tuner to travel across Europe and, eventually, to the Bay of Bengal.
Chekhov’s influence on this novel is clear from the epigraph, which quotes Chekhov’s widow, to one of the novel’s final images: Lika (Chekhov also loved a Lika) is seen as ‘a lady with a little dog’. One wonders, though, how mindful Boyd is of the great Russian writer’s urge to ‘flee the stereotype’ at all times. The first woman who is described in detail is Brodie’s favoured prostitute, Senga. She is ‘fair, slim and heavy-breasted’. She at least has a lazy eye — other brothel customers are keen to avoid the ‘squinty lassie’ — to differentiate her from the average gorgeous tart with a heart. Other women Brodie encounters wear expensive jewellery and serious expressions — ‘Money and intellect’, as Boyd says — or have ‘wide flat breasts’.
There is nothing wrong with a male novelist describing the physicality of his female characters, Thomas Hardy was memorably taken with Sue Bridehead’s ‘apple-like convexities’, after all. What we remember of Jude the Obscure, however, is the tragic quashing of Sue’s free-spirited independence, in contrast to Lika Blum, whose ‘lovely titties’, as one character describes them, overshadow her inner life.