William Boyd, soon to be 70, continues to knock out new books while most of his contemporaries are still trying to tame the flashing cursor on an empty Word document. Two years after his 15th novel, 2018’s masterful Love is Blind, comes his 16th, Trio. (He is also the author of five short-story collections and four plays.)
At first sight, Trio seems conspicuously underwhelming. Many of his most celebrated works – 1987’s The New Confessions, 2002’s Any Human Heart, 2015’s Sweet Caress – read like novelistic biographies, tracing the lives of their lead characters from birth to death, and cramming innumerable world events in between.
Trio, which runs to just 352 pages, is a slighter affair. It has the feel of a literary Ealing comedy almost – for though not strictly a comedy, its tone is brisk and witty, and it is peopled by folk who err towards caricature.
The i newsletter latest news and analysis
It is high summer 1968, a tumultuous year in the world which brings the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy, and riots in Paris. But little of this filters through to Brighton, where a film – Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon – is being made.
During filming – problematical, as all film shoots are – its ageing producer Talbot Kydd, the director’s novelist wife Elfrida Wing and A-list actress Anny Viklund’s lives will change irrevocably. (Throughout the book, Boyd affords his cast names with a Dickensian gusto: there is a Janet Headstone, a Maitland Bole, a Troy Blaze; the film’s director, Reggie Tipton, would henceforth like to be known as “Rodrigo”).
Each of the three leads is concealing an inner life – homosexuality, alcoholism, a terrorist ex-husband – while maintaining the Keep Calm and Carry On façade that all people in the late 60s were required to display in public. Nevertheless, each is fraying, some more than others.
Boyd is very much in domestic mode here, but, like the car that Talbot Kydd drives – an opulent Alvis, which resembles a Rolls-Royce on steroids – the whole thing purrs along with such effortlessness that you are barely aware of the engine working underneath.
There is much attention to period detail, a lovely portrait of the 60s British film world, and Boyd’s characters live, breathe and bruise vividly.
All of this makes for a novel as charming as it is satisfying, a pleasure to read. And it confirms, once again, that Boyd, long a consummate storyteller, still has it.
Trio, William Boyd, Viking, £18.99