[This novel is presented in parts., and I decided to read it one part at a time. I wrote about each one before reading on, so I had no idea how things would turn out in the end.]
4 November 2018
Prologue and Part 1
The novel’s subtitle is The Rapture of Brodie Moncur, and we see that name again at the end of the teasing little prologue. It consists of a one-page letter written in 1906, in which a lady traveller on some obscure island off India tells her friend that he is to be her new Scottish secretary in his mid-30s. Is she to be the love interest?
As soon as Chapter 1 opens, twelve years earlier, it seems much more likely that this new job is an escape from something. From now on Boyd goes in for conventional storytelling: third-person narration strictly limited to Brodie Moncur’s point of view, perfectly linear chronology (aside from a few biographical details to fill in the background), confident male hero. Brodie Moncur isn’t any better than he should be—he makes two sentimental visits to his favourite prostitute in his last few days in Scotland—but he isn’t any worse either. It’s 1894, and Boyd makes some plausible nods towards the world of that era. Brodie is the chief tuner in the main Edinburgh saleroom of a piano manufacturing company—his boss tells him there are 250 piano-makers in Europe at the time—while his hated father is a bible-thumping priest who has used his self-serving mix of bullying and charisma to have a big new church and manse built in their village near Peebles.
This section of the book is introductory. In his workmanlike way—and that isn’t meant as a criticism—Boyd lets us know enough about Brodie to pique our interest. He always refers to him as Brodie, as though he wants us to feel that we’re getting on intimate terms with him. We’re even there, now I come to think of it, as Senga the sex-worker—Brodie seems genuinely to think of hers as just one particular form of employment—massages his penis to get him ready…. We know all about his bad eyesight, wonder whether it might have any bearing on the novel’s title, and take note of the fact that he offers to pay for treatment for Senga’s lazy eye. It doesn’t bother him, but having it straightened out might help her career, he thinks. A fine, thoughtful member of the Patriarchy, you might say, trusted enough for Senga to have told him that her real name is Agnes. Ah.
In Chapter 1 he gets a promotion within the piano company, Channon’s—he’s going to be sent to Paris to boost sales in the new showroom there that isn’t doing well. He knows that this might be a poisoned chalice. His French isn’t as good as he has let his boss believe, and the son of the owner who runs the Paris shop, whom he’s met, strikes him as self-serving and without notable qualities. But his salary is to be doubled, and hey, it’s Paris. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance? All he needs to do before setting sail is pay his respects to the family—and, far more importantly for him, to the lady of the manor who was his mother’s friend and paid the fees for his musical talent to be nurtured. He’ll stay for as short a time as possible in the village, even avoiding one of his father’s showpiece sermons—he’s taken to advertising in the newspapers, and he makes real money—by leaving early on Sunday.
During the two days he spends there, we are shown a more literal kind of patriarchy. The father is a monster who holds Brodie’s eight or nine siblings in thrall. (The father has lost count, and it isn’t surprising.) Brodie holds his father responsible for the death of his beloved mother, who died giving birth to something like the fifth or sixth of the children to be stillborn, or who survived for a few days at most. He thinks it was her fifteenth pregnancy, when he wasn’t yet fourteen and she was in her 40s. And Malcolm Moncur, the father who seems more grotesque at every appearance—Brodie recognises the exact stages of his intoxication on the first night—really does seem to hate the son who escaped. He wants the renegade to understand his outsider status, constantly referring to his colouring, darker than anyone else’s in the family—he’s a ‘blackamoor’—and Brodie is glad to spend most of Saturday fishing with Callum, his favourite brother. He persuades him to stay out for the evening after their calming day on the familiar river. He hopes that this day is what he’ll remember—he constantly reminds himself to hold details of it in his mind—and tries not to brood on the five unmarried sisters who seem forever trapped. There’s a younger brother too, in harness to carry out whatever his father wants, but at least Callum has a proper job in Peebles. Malcolm, of course, mocks it mercilessly.
Next morning, is it a little contrived for Boyd to have Malcolm reminding Brodie that it’s the anniversary of his mother’s death? Certainly, but Brodie has to submit to an extension to his stay—his father has already turned away the driver who was going to take him to the station anyway—so he can attend church. He is ashamed to have forgotten the anniversary, but the sermon has nothing to do with his mother. It’s one of his father’s usual performances, beginning with the typical flourish of a dramatic entrance from the red curtain behind a pulpit raised higher than usual. (Brodie can’t understand why the sharply intelligent Lady Dalcastle is taken in. Maybe that’s a storyline we’ll hear more of.) What follows is a thinly-veiled attack on Brodie, enlarging on a text from the Apocrypha about the righteous father and the self-righteous son. It’s no surprise that when Brodie finally does leave Edinburgh three days later—at least he has time for another visit to Senga—‘he had a powerful conviction that he would never see Scotland again.’
Which is how Part 1 ends.
Time passes. In fact, eighteen months have passed even before Chapter 1 of this section begins, and Brodie is comfortably established at Channon & Cie. His French is now good, and we see how his ideas and forward thinking have begun to turn around the fortunes of the Paris branch. Despite the constant resistance to his plans by Calder Channon, the manager and son of the current chief of the company, there is now always a concert-standard pianist performing in the window and a piano opened to show its internal workings, both drawing an all-day audience and new customers coming in. He has a growing team of tuners and other specialists and, in the early chapters of this section, he’s persuading the company to rent a maintenance warehouse outside Paris so pianos won’t need to be sent all the way to Scotland for repair. Some of these are things that he’d wanted in Edinburgh but had been overruled on… because the Channon family clearly don’t realise he’s a born entrepreneur. (Despite his colouring, he clearly has his father’s money-making DNA in there somewhere. Not that anybody, either Brodie or Boyd, is mentioning such a thing. But it would be a bit hard to credit otherwise, come think of it.)
But, very early on, he realises that profits shouldn’t simply have plateaued at just above break-even point, which is what has happened. Somebody must have his hands in the till but, when Calder’s father Ainsley makes one of his occasional visits, Brodie is only able to drop the tiniest hint that profits are surprisingly low, given the turnover. The man perpetrating the fraud is almost certainly Calder, and he can’t come straight out and accuse his boss’s son. Boyd makes it laughably obvious that Brodie is right. Calder keeps the accounts strictly between himself, as manager, and the accountant he uses. Brodie, as the mere under-manager—despite being the true manager in everything but name—has never been allowed to see any of the finances. It’s nonsense.
I mention this because it’s a set-up. Not by Calder, but by Boyd, who uses it to move the plot along near the end of Part 2. (It’s a problem I’m beginning to find with this novel. Sometimes Boyd doesn’t hide the workings of the plot carefully enough.) Later, when the branch is making huge amounts of money, and Brodie is contemplating expansion—and when proper audits can no longer be avoided—Calder and his accountant concoct an escape plan. Between them, they forge Brodie’s initials on bogus receipts and other papers to provide evidence that he has embezzled thousands. Ainsley has to sack him, and pretends at first that he believes the transparent fraud of the accusation. But within minutes, Brodie has got him admitting that he knows very well who the culprit is, that he regards Brodie as a second son—what is it about fathers and sons in this novel?—but that Calder is his only real son. He simply can’t risk the family rift that would happen if the truth came out—grandchildren are starting to arrive, and Ainsley wants them to grow up knowing who he is. OK.
But one last thing about that plot-thread. Brodie wonders whether he was right to accept Ainsley’s pay-off, a year’s salary in lieu of notice. Which makes me wonder whether it might come back to bite him: Calder is nasty enough to go public with his accusation, and Brodie’s acceptance of a pay-off, if it would do him some good. And, while I’m on the subject of Boyd showing his working… why does he have Lika, the love-interest who’s finally emerged in Part 2, drop her handbag so she has to show Brodie the loaded Derringer she always carries. What do we all know about mentioning loaded guns…? Or, Heaven forbid, could it be a tease? Either way, I’m not going to be impressed. Sorry.
This isn’t the main storyline in Part 2, Lika is—or Lydia Blum as she is when he first encounters her. She’s a Russian opera singer, and Boyd places her onstage in such a way that Brodie can’t quite focus on her. He clearly wants the sexually charged hit to come when Brodie is face-to-face with her, by accident, at her dressing-room door. After three or four lines describing her hair and Japanese-style dressing-gown, Boyd gets down to business. ‘He knew—his male senses told him—that she was naked under her lurid gown. And somehow this knowledge changed everything.’ This is clever writing. That ‘somehow’ is the go-to word when something needs to be evoked that’s difficult to describe, and that ‘male sense’ of Brodie’s is something we can believe of him. He just knows she’s naked, and we’re ready for the next stage, after he’s asked her where the evening’s pianist can be found. ‘As she raised her hand Brodie registered unthinkingly the clear shift and rearrangement of her breasts beneath the silk. He was stirred. His throat was dry.’
Even before this moment, such as when Brodie enjoys the company of Senga in Edinburgh or another favourite in Paris, I’ve been thinking about the forthrightness of Boyd’s male gaze. OK, I know we’re meant to take it to be Brodie’s gaze, but come on. This is a highly sexualised narrative, and different aspects of the male physical response are central to it. That ‘stirring’ is perhaps an over-used word in this context, but after details of her presence have been subjected, over a seven-line paragraph, to the same gaze as before, Boyd moves on in his coverage of the sensory details. Brodie is ‘conscious of a trapped bubble of air in his chest, in his oesophagus, like a fist. So that was Lydia Blum . . . He felt his sphincter loosen and the bubble of air expand to fill his lungs. He exhaled and became dizzy for a second. What was going on? Forget Lydia Blum—find…’ whoever. He’s as hooked as those trout caught by him and his brother two years before. This is Boyd’s cynical 21st Century version of a straight-down-the-line Romeo and Juliet moment. Now we know what that subtitle is all about, The Rapture of Brodie Moncur. And whatever happens, we’ve always known it’s going to end badly. I wonder who’ll be firing that gun, with its carefully described two bullets. Not Brodie, surely, if he’s at large eight or more years after the date we’ve reached by the end of Part 2. Maybe Lika fires the gun? Or her lover perhaps, when he finds out what’s going on? He is…
…the concert pianist, John Kilbarron, an astonishing virtuoso beginning to fade a little. So when Lika proves to be as keen to get Brodie into bed as he is to go there, it’s going to be tricky. I’ll come back to Kilbarron, because I’m still thinking about this ‘rapture.’ Brodie’s sexuality has been mentioned often in the chapters leading up to this cataclysmic moment—it isn’t only the gaze that’s male. At one stage, making his way to his favourite Paris brothel, he muses on how ‘pleasuring oneself’ is all well and good, but there’s nothing to beat the close contact of naked flesh against flesh…. And this is the man who is supposed to be susceptible to an immovable passion. Reader, this isn’t a boyish crush. This involves confusion, dizziness and, my goodness, a sphincter. He’s clearly lost, take it or leave it.
Part 2 is over 100 pages long, so there’s plenty happening—and we wonder what will come back to bite Brodie in the rest of the book. The affair ought to be straightforward. Lika has clearly had enough of Kilbarron, surely, and Brodie has always been free of such ties… so maybe there’s something we don’t know about. For now, they have a fine time whenever Kilbarron is away, or in their regular evenings in a local hotel where the staff become quite affectionate towards them and their paper-thin little fiction of a complicated married life. Whatever, by the end of Part 2 she and Kilbarron have a contract to work in St Petersburg and Lika wonders if Brodie is free to come and do the technical tuning he’s so good at. Umm, he says, pretending to think about it before biting her hand off at the chance. He’s bored in Paris with no job to go to.
Kilbarron comes into the frame early on by way of another of Brodie’s enterprising schemes to bring in more custom for Channon. He thinks it would be a good idea for them to sponsor a well-known concert pianist, who would play one of their instruments for a large fee, and his endorsement would appear in their advertising. Brodie has no luck at all at first, and we see how easy it is for his mood to take a severe downward turn. (One to file away for later? It isn’t the only time it happens.) But as he starts to give up hope, Boyd has one of the shop piano-players tell Brodie that ‘the Irish Liszt’ is working in Paris—Who? Asks Brodie—and Dimitri, the piano-player, explains. Kilbarron is a renowned virtuoso, but his career seems to have been going nowhere recently. Why doesn’t Brodie write? He does and… nothing. This isn’t simply just another little tweak of tension, although that’s part of it. Kilbarron, is a disorganised drunk, not that we know that yet, so it’s plausible. And he eventually promises Brodie a meeting, to his immense relief—at the end of which (tweak, tweak) he refuses the deal. Then, through his thuggish-looking brother, changes his mind.
Concert tour, time away, Brodie becoming indispensable. The affair carrying on in the background. Sales of Channon pianos going through the roof. The thuggish brother demands a new, impossibly generous contract, and Calder Channon forces Brodie to be the one to tell him that the only deal on offer is the same one as before. Threats, foul language, shouting…. Afterwards, Brodie can’t remember a worse half-hour in his life, ever. But not enough has been happening in the novel, and the stress of the meeting is Boyd’s way of getting things to move on. There’s been plenty of sex—Brodie can’t help thinking about the amazing things Lika lets him do to her, and vice versa, whenever she and Kilbarron are together with him in the same room—so, after Thugbarron has left, it’s time for some blood. Not the Derringer yet, something else: ‘His lips parted and he sensed the gush of vomit burst out. Except it wasn’t vomit—it was dark blood, splashing on his desk and the books ranked on the far side against the wall. Like a breakwater against the blood-tide. A break-blood against . . .’ Boyd likes to keep it physical, and it’s a vivid image. Brodie is pretty sure he is going to die…
…but, as the doctor explains later, the first sign of tuberculosis is often spectacular. Blood-filled tubules rupture an already weakened artery wall, and—whoosh. I’m paraphrasing. But Boyd has given us his set-piece moment, so now Brodie can convalesce in Nice for six months, meet a likeable Russian, meet—much more troubling—the man’s waif-like mistress, now unceremoniously dumped… and come back to Paris. Calder and the crooked accountant have used his absence to stop their fraud and allow the profits to climb, so it’s easier to make a convincing case against him—again, it’s hard not to wonder if this will become important later—and he accepts the offer of that job with Kilbarron in St Petersburg. Kilbarron will be busy—he is under contract to their rich sponsor to write a lot of music—so there’ll be plenty of time to catch up with Lika.
I’m not sure how much I care, to be honest.
I’ll be quick. It’s Brodie—or ‘Mon-cur’ as Kilbarron calls him shortly before the climactic duel in which he, Brodie, is the one to do it. Fire the Derringer. Both barrels in Kilbarron’s chest, in self-defence, to avoid the mad Irishman killing him after just failing to do so in a duel. Melodramatic? I couldn’t possibly comment. OK then, yes, melodramatic. And, as Brodie and an English friend he’s made in Petersburg talk about literary precedents, it’s a convenient readymade climax to an otherwise dull section. Long before this, I was almost ready to give up after 50 pages of Boyd describing Brodie’s frustrated, boring life by making us go through it all with him, minute by clock-ticking minute. He manages a blissful period of plein-air sex in the countryside with Lika before he starts to think that Thugbarron—real name Malachi—might be suspicious of their separate disappearances every two or three days. Then there’s another, shorter interlude—just two short stays, I think—in a hotel in the town near the dacha where Kilbarrron and his entourage spend the warm Russian spring and summer. Otherwise, he’s going nuts.
Before this, in Petersburg for the winter months, Brodie can’t see Lika for more than a five-second kiss or a four-second fumble. She’s always with Kilbarron, and goes away on foreign tours with him. Etc. etc. (Sorry.) Then Kilbarron gets a dacha and, eventually, Brodie comes up with his subterfuges—he’s always the one who thinks of ways to get around the obstacles to their devoutly wished-for consummations—and, in fact, Malachi suspects nothing. What Brodie does to bring about their discovery is something we absolutely know is going to make it happen. He allows himself to persuade Lika that they can extend their stay at the local hotel to two nights instead of one—Lika has a plausible reason for not being at the dacha for one, a toothache needing treatment—and he writes a telegram. To nobody’s surprise, Malachi appears in their bedroom within the same day. OK, maybe the fact that readers, as Jane Austen puts it in Northanger Abbey, will have noticed ‘in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to….’ To what? Not the ‘felicity’ Austen’s heroine is looking forward to, certainly. As if we need reminding, Brodie has a foreboding at one point that things might well ‘go badly.’ You don’t say.
In fact, in his monomaniac pursuit of whatever it is he’s pursuing—yes, I know as well as you do—Brodie had made the elementary mistake of filling in the telegram form in his own handwriting. So, having put two and two together, here’s the thug to make their lives miserable. Malachi tells the lovers that they are going to have to do absolutely everything he says, otherwise he’ll tell his brother everything. And he tells them that things are going to get much worse in their little lives until he decides to ‘release’ them. I don’t know why Boyd feels he needs him to talk like a pantomime villain, but he, Malachi, isn’t lying. Almost immediately Kilbarron starts to treat Brodie ‘coolly,’ and suddenly he’s sent back early to Petersburg. He isn’t in the inner circle any more.
Petersburg. Dull, apart from an interlude when he’s invited to a soiree by the daughter of the rich woman sponsoring Kilbarron. After she tries to practically force him into having sex—he only saves himself by telling her he has tuberculosis, a supposed ‘betrothed’ in Scotland having not diverted her by a single degree—he discovers she does this to everyone. It’s the Englishman who tells him this. He’s a ‘confirmed bachelor,’ but pretends he has a wife and four children when she’d jumped on him, as he puts it. I’m not sure why this incident is in there. Maybe she’ll feature later in the trial, if it comes to that. (We don’t actually know yet whether Kilbarron is dead.)
Anyway. Kilbarron returns early to Petersburg, bringing the others, so that he can work on all that music he needs to get finished for the showpiece concert at the end of the summer. Brodie has performed his usual magic on the piano—his unique selling-point is his ability to make the keys have the touch of ‘a snowflake’ to enable Kilbarron to continue playing—so it’s ready. The ‘maestro’—he’s been that since the moment he arrived—is in so much pain he has to inject himself every time he plays otherwise, or so Malachi says, he’s finished after five minutes.
Are you bored yet? Nearly there. Kilbarron, for whatever reason, is more cool than ever with Brodie, and even pretends he has got himself a new tuner. And, out of the blue, Brodie is barred from a rehearsal of the new work…. And this is where I ruefully have to admit that I didn’t see the next twist coming. Much earlier in the novel, when Brodie and Lika have met but she knows nothing of his infatuation, he plays her a little folk-tune his mother used to sing. He’s written an arrangement of it to test almost every note of the piano—but it contains a particular key-change that is almost guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye. He jots it down for her to rehearse for an audition—I forgot to mention that she can never get parts because her voice, though beautiful, isn’t strong enough for the concert hall—and he never sees his manuscript again.
Yep, you’ve got it. When Brodie smuggles himself in via trapdoors and hidden stairs, he hears that the climactic, bring-the-house-down core section of Kilbarron’s long-awaited ‘tone poem’ is based on his own arrangement of that tune. He assumes Kilbarron simply stole it—he had shown an openly genuine interest in its structure when he heard Brodie playing it to Lika all that time ago—but it’s perfectly possible that Lika had Brodie write it down specifically for this purpose. Maybe the biggest twist of all is that she doesn’t hate the Kilbarron brothers as much as she says. She’s often told Brodie how ‘complicated’ things are, has not hidden the fact that she knew Malachi before his brother—and, because we are only ever presented with Brodie’s view of things, she is never any more than a cipher. We understand absolutely nothing of her motives, beyond an interest in sex that equals Brodie’s.
And I’ve just had another thought. It may be that I’m just trying to make an underwhelming reading experience a bit more interesting, but I was trying to work out why on earth she sends him an 1899 version of a pornographic spam email. Her secret note is in Russian, although she knows he can’t read it, and the man he gets to translate it is so embarrassed he almost can’t do it. Something about how she can’t wait to feel his huge cock—or penis, I forget—inside her. What? What?
Brodie is outraged by the theft of his own composition, and confronts Kilbarron. Bad idea—all he gets is abuse, and a story about how the tune is Irish, and in the public domain. When Brodie tries to threaten him with the law, he becomes nearly as unpleasant as his brother. It ends with Brodie slamming the door and trying to calm himself at the river… where he finds himself coughing up blood. Damn Kilbarron, he thinks—and, as if by magic, an opportunity presents itself for him to take his revenge. The haemorrhage isn’t too bad and, back at the theatre, a stage manager tells him Kilbarron needs the piano tuning. Give me half an hour, says Brodie, who checks what he already knew: it’s perfect. And it’s only then that he decides to sabotage a key so that after a few strikes it will stick…. The concert is a disaster, Malachi guesses Brodie is behind it—the stage-manager remembers him, obviously, and Brodie never was any good at thinking things through—and tells Kilbarron about Brodie and Lika.
At the duel Kilbarron insists on, presented to Brodie as a mere formality, Brodie shoots into the air. Then Kilbarron fires straight at him, the bullet tearing his ear. Then he’s down on Brodie, a different gun to the back of his neck—which is when Brodie twists himself around and fires the little pistol he’s brought. Just in case.
Preposterous. Kilbarron might be dead, or he might not. Either way, it’s fine by me. I’m just hoping that if he does die, Part 4 won’t mainly consist of a protracted courtroom battle. I can imagine the vindictive Malachi persuading his brother’s rich patroness that it was professional jealousy or some other trumped-up charge—he’s nasty enough. And there’s the other potential love (or lust) interest. I don’t think the nympho daughter is in the frame, but Brodie’s Russian doctor is the kind of ice-queen to have piqued Brodie’s interest. In another life, he thinks… but with Lika, there is no other life for him. There are certain absolutes in this book—Malachi is a malevolent force who is unlikely to go away, Brodie will only ever love Lika. Any others I’ve forgotten about? What about his tuberculosis? The monstrous father in Scotland?
Bring it on. If you must.
…which is so short—less than half the length of Parts 2 or 3—that I’ll just fill in some details of the plot. It’s nearly all plot now, and I realise how those little irrelevant-seeming details fall into place in order to bring on the next bit of agony. Like, I haven’t once mentioned Brodie’s favourite tobacco, which Boyd mentions at least as often as Brodie’s penis. It—the tobacco, not Brodie’s penis—arrives in packages sent from a tobacconist in Edinburgh to the poste restante wherever in Europe Brodie happens to be. Have you worked it out yet? No, you haven’t—but only because I haven’t mentioned that Malachi always knows which town Brodie and Lika are in. Or that in Part 2, at the dacha before Malachi had become their sworn enemy, Brodie had told him where he gets his tobacco because Malachi liked it so much….
Now you get it. Luckily, the tobacconist includes a note with a consignment telling him that his good friend Mr Kilbarron had been asking after him. Malachi might be the ‘hell-hound’ Lika had called him before they find out how he tracked them, but this isn’t the work of the devil. ’There was nothing diabolic about it, as Lika feared,’ Brodie, he realises, had been ‘the hapless, unwitting agent of his own discovery.’ Malachi, they realise later that same day, has already been snooping around where they live, the package having been sent three weeks before. So they are off and away to the next town—but this time with Brodie having made a mental note never to contact that tobacconist again.
But, oh! the irony. It’s just after this final resolution—they can live wherever they like now without fear of being tracked down—that Lika decides she’s had enough of hiding. Women, eh? Unless she never planned to stay away forever anyway, because guess who she’s gone to be with? Malachi, of course. The note she leaves for Brodie, having drugged his drink the night before to give herself time to get away—and Brodie had just been musing ruefully on the secrets in his life—comes right at the end of Part 4, so we can only guess at his reaction. No doubt Boyd will fill in all the ghastly details pretty soon.
But a lot has happened before this. The duel, and the truth of Kilbarron’s death, are hushed up and a fictional account is circulated of how he has died suddenly in his bed. But he’d kicked Lika out before the duel, and she had agreed that she would accompany Brodie to Biarritz—which is where we find them both. But… the Malachi plot kicks in, and they move from the south of France to Edinburgh. Cue brooding visit to the old place, under shitty Scottish skies—Brodie himself makes a comment about the ‘pathetic fallacy’ so the reader doesn’t have to—where Malcolm the monster is a shadow of his former self. He still rants at Brodie and his blackness, still makes the lives of everyone else in the family as miserable as before… and, when he leaves, Brodie parts on absolutely terrible terms. He’s even kicked away one of the two walking-sticks Malcolm needs, and watched him struggling to get up from the ground.
Two other things in Scotland. Three other things. He and ‘Mrs Moncur’—they are only pretending to be married because, I assume, she is already married to Malachi—visit Lady Dalcastle, who is in as ruinous a state as her house. And while there, she a) gives Brodie a cheque for £100, and b) mentions Broderick, her trusted former old retainer. I just noticed the similarity of the names, that’s all, I’m sure it’s nothing. Next, Ainsley Channon offers him the job as manager of the Paris branch, which he’s ready to accept—until Ainsley tells him Malachi had been asking after him. And, by way of a letter he sends to Callum after he’s seen him in Peebles—Brodie had been writing jaunty letters to him from time to time all through Parts 2, 3 and 4—we discover his beloved brother has become a swearing bully under the influence of drink. In his letter, Brodie admonishes him, describing his condition as dipsomania….
Next. To Nice this time and, as ever, Brodie and Lika settle into a comfortable bourgeois life. And it’s in Nice that Brodie finally realises how Malachi is tracking them down. And Lika’s note at the end of this section tells him that Malachi’s apparent obsession with Brodie is no such thing. He only ever wanted to kill Brodie to get her back. Previously, when she’d tearfully told Brodie that she knows Malachi, knows that ‘he wants to kill us,’ she was being disingenuous. What other secrets does she have? (And I’ve just remembered: just before she leaves, they go to a performance of Kilbarron’s tone-poem, the one based on Brodie’s arrangement. He has to leave, and while brooding on it he asks her almost outright whether she let Kilbarron have his manuscript. She appears shocked, assures him she left it at the audition she’d had it written for—and tells him he had the whole thing in his head long before then. It’s true, Kilbarron had a marvellous capacity for remembering all the nuances of piano pieces, as Brodie saw for himself. Or did he? I can’t remember if Kilbarron might already have had a chance to familiarise himself with the arrangement before going over it with Brodie….)
Whatever. Not long now….
8 November, later
Parts 5, 6 and 7—to the end
These are very short sections, and nothing surprising happens. A dying fall, then, almost literally—except Brodie doesn’t actually fall during his worst haemorrhage ever. But he does die, some time later, and Lika arrives just in time to commission a special epitaph. It consists of lines from that old folk-song, the one which, Brodie reminds himself—and the reader—has led to all his happiness and all his unhappiness. ‘My bonny man has gone tae sleep’ and all that…. There isn’t a dry eye in the house as the short verse ends another letter from the lady traveller, a bona fide American anthropologist in fact, and brings the novel to a close.
If Lika had arrived a few days or weeks earlier on the obscure island we know about from the prologue, it would have been only the second time they had met since she absconded at the end of Part 4. The turn of the century had come and gone some time before that, and it’s 1902 when Brodie’s life on his own begins. He doesn’t even bother to try not obsessing about her, and he carries out his own bit of detective work. In Biarritz, the first place they had settled in after leaving Petersburg, they had known about Malachi’s pursuit of them because of a newspaper advert he had placed. He was seeking information about ‘Leila Blum’ supposedly so that she could receive an unexpected inheritance, and there was a return address in Paris. All Brodie has to do now, some years later, is go to Biarritz to look up back copies at the newspaper offices…. We’re told all this in a flashback because, as usual Boyd has started a new section when Brodie is already established in some new city, new job, new chapter of his life. He’s in Trieste in 1905 at the start of Part 5, and Boyd has a lot of filling-in to do.
He winds back to 1902—or is it 1903 by now?—and Brodie is stalking Malachi and Lika. He knows where they live—cue flashback within a flashback to explain the newspaper detective work—and he has often seen them out, together or separately. But what to do…? Something makes him decide to follow whichever of them comes out first one morning, and it happens to be Lika. He follows her to a small business she now runs, a high-end haberdashery, and he goes up to her office. Where she seems completely unfazed to see him. However…
…she isn’t going to be leaving Malachi because—I told you there were no surprises—she’s been married to him since she was eighteen. Things were already somewhat on the rocks by the time his brother came along—John Kilbarron, the virtuoso pianist. He needed some support in his life, and between them they reached a Kilbarron modus vivendi. She had become John’s mistress, and Malachi had become a sort of business manager. Brodie finds it difficult to believe, but Lika tries to assure him Malachi is far less confident than he seems, etc. etc. The set-up worked well, although life with John was hardly a bowl of cherries, even if he was prepared to have her on the same bill as himself, and now he was drinking too much. This is how things had been when Brodie happened along. And John might be dead now, but she owes Malachi—and besides, as we know, he’s as dogged in his own way as Brodie. She’s staying with him.
It’s clear to the reader that she doesn’t regard Brodie in anything like the same way that he regards her—he’s one of the men in her life, not the centre of her whole world. She, in all sincerity (as far as we can tell) is very touched by his love for her but, she tells him, his is a blind love. He only sees the light in her, not the darkness. Can’t he try to see her as she really is, she asks—the implication being that she wants him to start to behave like a rational human being, and maybe see how things appear from her point of view. But—no surprises, again—he can’t. She’s already allowed him one of the kisses that are her speciality—the Lika kiss—and he feels all the usual stirrings…. But he has to go when an assistant tells her she’s needed in the shop, and it’s clear what he has to do. He’ll need to bide his time until he can follow Malachi, and shoot him. He’d had the Derringer cleaned, and bought bullets, when they first left Petersburg.
Are you believing any of this? Do you care? (No, and no, if you’re like me.) A distraction causes him to miss his opportunity as he follows Malachi through a park some days later, the pistol cocked, and he realises it had been a crazy idea. He throws the pistol into the river and decides to leave Paris. He had got Lika to promise that she will get in touch, as long as he keeps letting her know his address. But… wherever he goes, there’s someone from one of the new-fangled detective agencies on his tail. No European city seems big enough, until he gets to Trieste, most cosmopolitan of all, and full of people passing through. So, by 1905, he’s as settled as he ever is—i.e. not very—working for a piano repairer and doing part-time tuning at the theatre.
And… I’ve had enough. It’s nearly the end anyway, and when two witty Irishmen persuade him to stick a pin in a globe, it lands in the ocean. But no, it appears to be an island… etc. Anthropologist, research into sexual practices, frank come-on from her—her technique is classier than the Russian heiress’s and, if Brodie hadn’t got distracted by a traveller he takes to be Malachi, he might have succumbed in the end. It would have been third time lucky, if you count the Russian doctor too. Brodie seeks out Malachi—he’s at an Irish-owned hotel—and feels the stress rising as he finds him, his back to him in the restaurant, and calls to him. When the man turns round, it isn’t Malachi… but the strain on those pesky tubules is too much. Whoosh, again.
Deathbed, hallucinations—I wonder if Boyd was thinking of Andrei’s death in War and Peace, because it’s surprisingly spiritual for him—and a glass of warm champagne with the German doctor who tells him it’s a tradition in his country. Mortal coil all shuffled off.
The end, apart from that final letter. Strange meeting between Page, the anthropologist, and one Lydia Blum, who she knows must be the woman Brodie always loved. Malachi? Fell off a bridge. We wonder if he was pushed. We don’t really care. Epitaph. Tears. I wondered whether there might be a tighter, more emotionally engaging book fighting to get out of this one, but I can’t see it myself—Boyd sticks too rigidly to the single male point of view, so nobody else gets a look-in. It means that Lika, who should be the other great pillar of the love-story, is only ever a cipher.
I recently discovered that there are a lot of hidden references to Robert Louis Stevenson in the book. Brodie himself mentions The Master of Ballantrae, but there are parallels with Stevenson’s life (and death) too. The cities he lives in, the tuberculosis, the death on an island in the East Indies…. Brodie even uses the same alias at one stage in his peripatetic life, Balfour. Other critics, I’ve since discovered, see parallels with Chekhov and Chopin. And, when Lika’s little dog, the one she leaves behind with Brodie because it always loved him more, plays out a heart-rending (i.e. mawkish) pastiche of Greyfriars Bobby, the little Edinburgh dog who wouldn’t leave his master’s grave…. For me, none of this adds a thing. There seem to be lots of Easter eggs to be found. OK. So?