The Blue Afternoon

by William Boyd

I’m always ready to read something by William Boyd.  I picked up this novel at the twice-yearly book sale in Winchcombe church, and, along with Brazzaville Beach which I bought at Exeter Bookcycle a year or two ago, it has been waiting on my ‘to-read’ shelf.

With Boyd, you never know quite what to expect.  His settings and characters are so diverse, and his imagination so fertile, that each story is a new adventure.  I never find myself thinking “oh yes, another version of the same story” as might be the case with other authors.

What is a characteristic of Boyd’s writing, however, is the way a story may turn on a chance encounter, missed opportunity or unwise decision.  Our lives are not mapped out, but rather, our paths develop according to decisions made, opportunities taken or not taken, and ‘stuff’ that happens to us, often without us being able to influence it in any way.  One book which demonstrates this haphazardness of life in a highly dramatic way is Ordinary Thunderstorms.  It is a theme, too, of The Blue Afternoon.

The main story takes place in the Philippines in the early years of the twentieth century, and the ‘outer’ story begins in Los Angeles in the 1930s, when a young architect meets Salvador Carriscant, a man who purports to be her father.  They undertake a journey together, in which he recounts the story of his career as a surgeon and of his great love, Delphine Sieverance.

As a love story, it is touching and at the same time quite shocking.  Carriscant’s attraction to Delphine is animal and overwhelming.  Both are already married; they plan to run away together but the plan fails and they are separated for many years. Carriscant enlists the help of his daughter to find Delphine again.  For me, the trip and the eventual reunion are somewhat unnecessary and almost contrived.  The real story is what happens in the Philippines, and Carriscant’s efforts to find his lost love in later life are touching, but not central to the narrative.

I confess that I did try to skip ahead – so maybe the story did not engage me as much as I would have liked.  But it is nevertheless a very good story, with interesting (if not exactly likeable) characters.