William Boyd is a writer than elicits great love from many a bookworm. His 2010 novel Any Human Heart, the story of Logan Mountstuart’s ordinary yet extraordinary life, tops many a favourite book list.
Keen to join this army of devotees, I read Any Human Heart a couple of years ago and waited – and waited – to be transported into that zen like other worldliness that a good book takes you too. But I never clicked with it. Was it pompous Logan? Boyd’s sturdy prose? The inescapable maleness of it? I don’t know, but whatever it was the book didn’t seduce me.
But Boyd is clearly a robust and imaginative storyteller and I wasn’t about to give up after one novel. I picked Ordinary Thunderstorms as a friend – a Boyd fan – said it reminded her of Ian McEwan, in my mind a Very Good Thing.
Ordinary Thunderstorms – a rather grandiose title for such an unpoetic book – is the story of Adam Kindred, a climatologist, who on his return to his native England after years in the States, finds himself homeless, friendless and wanted for murder within a matter of hours.
His problems start when he stops for lunch in Chelsea. Most people’s do. But his problems are far worse than merely encountering a particularly rah-rah Sloane; his road to oblivion begins with some unnoteworthy chit-chat with another lone diner, Philip Wang. Wang is an eminent immunonogist who accidentally (on purpose?) leaves some rather important documents at the restaurant. When Adam attempts to return them to Wang at his flat, he becomes embroiled in some pretty dark business that shatters his life as he knows it forever.
Ordinary Thunderstorms is a thriller stuck in the Thames’ mud, its thrills bogged down by obscure details and unnecessary fluff (and I’m quite a big fan of unnecessary fluff). The book tantaslingly hints at being a bigger, better, more multi-layered novel than it is. The themes Boyd touches on – the corruption of the pharmaceutical industry, what it is to be a citizen in a 21st century city, identity and white collar crime – are rich for exploration, but are only given a cursory nod here.
The plot and the cast of characters are all in place; there’s an ugly bady with a soft-spot for dogs, a prostitute who still retains a tiny speck of humanity despite life’s best attempt to erase any compassion, a tough but kind police officer woman and some evil Suits. The Thames, in all its murky glory is the novel’s main artery, although Boyd doesn’t allow it to beat much life into the novel, the story’s pulse rarely rises above semi-consciousness.
Each of these main characters had their own – third person – chapter that are fairly indistinguishable. Rita, the police officer, who I think was meant to be a twenty-or-early-thirty something woman, sounded exactly like 59-year-old Ingram Fryzer, the head of the drug company Calenture-Deutz who employed unfortunate Philip Wang and whose dealings are decidedly dodgy. Cockney bad ‘un Jonjo Case, who is also on Adam’s trail, sounds like a privately-educated middle manager doing a bad impression of a barrow boy.
London, specifically the Thames, is perhaps the book’s starring role, although Boyd never really captured its magic. I’m reading Marcel Theroux’s fantastic Strange Bodies at the moment, a book that shares a lot of themes and motifs with Ordinary Thunderstorms, but the London Theroux conjures up is a far more 3D city than the one that lies rather flat in Boyd’s book.
Ordinary Thunderstorms is a readable if unexciting novel that doesn’t deliver that thunderbolt that a really great book should. Maybe it will be third time lucky for Boyd and me…
by Suzanne Elliott