Tag Archives: The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd: A satisfying snack

Always a delight to open a new William Boyd and find it dedicated ‘To Susan’. Nothing to do with me, obviously, but still… Short stories are almost as welcome as a novel for me these days particularly when two of them are pleasingly lengthy. Boyd’s collection also includes seven much shorter stories but, perhaps inevitably for a reader who still prefers longer fiction, these two were the ones I enjoyed best. Several are linked by the theme of art – those who would like to make it and those who do.

At just under 100 pages, you could almost call the eponymous story a novella. In her early twenties, Bethany flits from job to job, cursing her habit of immediately adding the last name of every attractive man she meets to her own and assessing the result. She’s the child of well-connected, acrimoniously divorced parents – father in Los Angeles, mother in London with whom she lives when she’s between men. When we first meet her, she’s working in a niche stationers’, spending her lunch hours working on her somewhat autobiographical novel, but before long she’s taken a bit-part in an indie film then she’s working in a gallery, calling herself a photographer. The story ends with the beginning of another year which sees Bethany wondering what she’s going to do next.

The Vanishing Game: An Adventure… is somewhat shorter but long enough for Boyd to have a lot of fun with Alec Dunbar, an actor down on his luck who accepts a job delivering a flask of water, supposedly from the River Jordan, to a remote Scottish church. Alec’s many roles in low-rent thrillers come in handy when he finds himself caught up in a real life version.

Of the seven shorter pieces, three stood out for me. In Humiliation a novelist fleeing eviscerating reviews bumps into one of his worst maulers and spots an opportunity for revenge. The Things I Stole tells the story of a man’s life through a trail of stolen goods – from a tin of cherry pie filling to his daughters’ happiness – ending pleasingly back where he began. The Man Who Loved Kissing sees a philandering gallery-owner get his comeuppance when his sure-fire way of avoiding another financially ruinous adultery backfires.

There’s much to enjoy in this collection, not least it’s humour. Bethany had me laughing out loud several times, reminding me of the comedy in Boyd’s earlier work. Most of the stories explore worlds which Boyd knows well enough to ridicule effectively. Both writing and film feature but it’s the art barbs that are the most satisfying reminding me of the Nat Tate trick he and David Bowie pulled off back in the ’90s. One of my favourites is Fernando Benn – Neville to his friends – who declares in Bethany:I’m not a photographer… …I’m an artist who chooses to work in lens-based media’. Benn’s show consists of photographs of war photographs clipped out of books, surely a law suit waiting to happen if the gallery were not so obscure that no one will notice. He pops up again in The Diarists peddling ‘faux-faux naif’ art to the rich, so bad it’s good. A few of the shorter pieces felt a little dashed-off to me but on the whole this is a very enjoyable collection, enough to keep Boyd fans happy until the next novel.

If you’d like to read another (possible) short story convert’s review, you might like to pop over to Cleopatra Loves Books  who was thoroughly won over.

Books to Look Out for in November 2017

Cover imageEdging ever closer to the end of the year with this preview which may well be the last set of new titles from me unless December has more to offer than novelty books and humour. Let’s hope it does. November kicks off with a novel I’m in two minds about, Richard Flanagan’s First Person – I avoided the Man Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road from the Deep South but very much enjoyed Gould’s Book of Fish. Based on a true story, First Person is about Kif Kehlmann, a ghost-writer who takes on the task of writing the memoir of Siegfred Heidl, about to go to trial for defrauding the banks of $700 million. ‘Everything that was certain grows uncertain as he begins to wonder: who is Siegfried Heidl – and who is Kif Kehlmann? As time runs out, one question looms above all others: what is the truth? By turns compelling, comic, and chilling, this is a haunting journey into the heart of our age’ say the publishers which sounds intriguing.

The lure of Heather, the Totality is the writer rather than the novel’s premise which sounds as if it might wander off into thriller territory. You may already know Matthew Weiner’s name from the addictive Mad Men series. Set in Manhattan – inevitably another lure for me – Weiner’s debut is about the wealthy Breakstone family whose sweet-natured, beautiful daughter Heather takes a wrong turn as a teenager. ‘An extraordinary first novel of incredible pull and menace. Heather, The Totality demonstrates perfectly [Weiner’s] forensic eye for the human qualities that hold modern society together, and pull it apart’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for some smart, stylish writing.

Set in 1950, Eliza Robertson’s debut, Demi-Gods, is also about a girl who finds herself led astray.Cover image Willa’s mother has a new boyfriend whose sons come as part of the package. When her sister pairs off with the elder son, nine-year-old Willa finds herself caught up in his younger brother’s wicked games which become sexual as they grow up. Willa’s efforts to change the nature of their relationship result in a devastating turn of events, apparently. ‘Demi-Gods explores a girl’s attempt to forge a path of her own choosing in a world where female independence is suspect. Sensitive, playful and entirely original, Eliza Robertson is one of the most exciting new voices in contemporary literature’ say the publishers which sounds up my street.

Jussi Valtonen won his country’s Finlandia Prize with They Know Not What They Do, bought by one in two Finns, apparently. Hard to imagine those kind of sales figures for a novel here in the UK. It’s about a celebrated neuroscientist living with his family in the States whose lab is targeted by animal rights activists. Shortly after the attack he’s called by the wife he abandoned in Finland over twenty years ago together with their young son who may now be after revenge. ‘As Joe struggles to protect his new family from the increasing threat of violence – and to save his eldest daughter from the clutches of an unscrupulous tech company – he is forced to reconsider his priorities and take drastic action to save those he loves’ say the publishers which doesn’t entirely sound my cup of tea but how can one in two Finns be wrong? And it’s published by Oneworld whose sharp editorial eye I trust.

I have to admit that I haven’t yet got around to Ali Smith’s Autumn, which kicked off her Seasonal Quartet last year. It’s November so it’s time for Winter whichcasts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter. It’s the season that teaches us survival’ say the publishers. I could do with something ‘merry’ to help me along in the so-called ‘post-truth’ era.

There was a time when my heart would have sunk when I discovered that a new title from a favourite novelist was a collection of short stories but I’m a reformed character. The subjects of the stories in William Boyd’s The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth range from an art dealer who tries to give up his philandering habits to a couple who tell the story of their relationship backwards while the eponymous Bethany’s tale is about a year of tentative self-discovery, apparently. I won’t say my heart sang as loudly as it would at the announcement of a new Boyd novel, but I am looking forward to reading this collection.

 That’s it for November’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, should you be interested. Shortish paperback post to follow soon…