Kay Fischer was raised in Long Beach, California, by her mother and stepfather. She was born in German New Guinea where her real father worked as a missionary and two months after her birth died in a fire - or did he?
When she's thirty-two, an elderly man, called Salvador Carriscant, accosts her claiming to be her father. He's half Scottish, half Spanish/Filipino and has lived nearly all his life in the Philippines (never in German New Guinea). He lets out only snippets of information, however, they're enough to intrigue her and make her doubt her mother's account. When he asks her to accompany him to El Paso to visit an old acquaintance from whom he hopes to get vital news, she accompanies him.
A foul betrayal by a former business partner depresses Kay so much that she even agrees to go to Lisbon with him to find a woman, no, *the* woman, the love of his life. They go by ship, the year is 1936 and travelling by plane isn't common yet. On the way Carriscant tells his story. The meeting and travelling of these two people provide the frame.
The story proper is set in Manila in 1903, it's composed of four intertwining threads. Dr. Salvador Carriscant, the most celebrated surgeon in the Philippines, and his Filipino anaesthetist Pantaleon, who's also been trained in Europe, stand for modern medicine heavily opposed by a colleague who finds hygiene in a hospital superfluous and ridiculous and whose ward resembles more a slaughterhouse than a surgery.
Pantaleon builds an aero-mobile in his spare time with which he wants to win a world-wide comp for the first flying machine "to lift itself off the ground under its own power and fly for one hundred metres...no ramps, pulleys, gradients." Carriscant is drawn into his scheme and made co-pilot on the day of the launch.
The third thread is Carriscant's love affair with an American woman. They both live in stale marriages and have no qualms of conscience cheating on their spouses. They suffer, however, because it's impossible to make their love public in the conservative society of Manila.
The last thread is the investigation into three murders, two American soldiers and one Chinese woman whose bodies are found mutilated, their hearts either cut or completely missing.
My main reading matter is contemporary realistic fiction set in the present or very recent past. So I wasn't sure how I'd like a novel which, although published in 1993, has a frame set in 1936 and a main body set a century ago. Not to worry, though, I was soon drawn in - just like Kay Fischer into her father's unlikely account. The exotic setting, the out-of-the-ordinary characters, their passions as well as the description of the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, which serves as historical background, made me turn the pages eagerly.
The novel has no profound ideas (besides the one that there is such a thing as undying love), it does not enlighten the reader, after finishing the last page I wasn't wiser than before I started reading. William Boyd is just a great storyteller and since our ancestors sat around the fire in their caves, sable-tooth tigers prowling outside, brilliant storytellers have been able to enchant and distract their listeners .
What I like about Boyd is that he does his homework but never gets on the readers' nerves with the knowledge he's accumulated. The information on the Spanish-American War, on medicine, on the flying machine are not shallow but don't patronise or bore the reader stiff.*
This is the sixth novel by William Boyd I've read, I can tell you that the man is unbelievably imaginative. Some time ago I read two novels of a different author, the plot was different, but the setting, the personnel and, above all, the tone were so similar that I had repeatedly a déjà-vu feeling. This could never happen with Boyd, he can get under the skin of a man or a woman, British, American or foreigner, young or old. If you didn't see the author's name on the covers of his books you wouldn't be able to guess that they've come from the same mind.
Although what I've said just now is laudable, it leads me to a complaint. I feel that in The Blue Afternoon Boyd got carried away by his chameleon-like ability to write from any point of view. The Kay Fischer character, who tells her story in the first person, is not wholly convincing in my opinion. Why does she have to be an architect? She follows the strict minimalist rules of the Bauhaus, this means, she's a matter-of-fact, no-frills, orderly woman. That's a good idea because these characteristics serve as a contrast to the odd, melodramatic story she hears from her father. But when Kay writes, "In the relaying of this story I have allowed myself some of the licence of a writer of fiction, have embellished it with information I obtained later and with facts gleaned from my own researches", then this doesn't sound convincing. To be able to do this the author should have made Kay a member of the writing profession.
What is more, in giving her a child that dies as an infant and describing her sex-life with her ex-husband he's gone too far, he's become vain, I'm afraid, these things add nothing whatsoever to the story proper. With these details he only shows, "Look, I can do it." Mr Boyd, such behaviour should be beneath you!
I must take off one star for this, but nevertheless recommend the novel to readers who enjoy a good yarn that doesn't insult their intelligence.
* (as is the case with Ian McEwan)
RRP 7.99 GBP