“Nobody of any importance or self-regard, with even the slightest modicum of self-esteem, walked in Manila in those days but Dr Carriscant relished the short stroll from his fine house on Calle de la Victoria to the San Jeronimo hospital, not only for the pleasant sensation of libertarian fellow feeling it provoked in him but also because the interlude allowed him to calm down, to forget the irritations and frustrations of his home life, and clear his mind for the exhilarating but complicated business of the day’s work waiting for him in surgical wards.”
How on earth does a writer of the calibre of William Boyd deliver such an over-written, overwrought piece of drivel? That question is never answered after reading The Blue Afternoon but it does raise interesting ones regarding the regard with which certain authors are held. For Boyd won numerous awards for this novel including two citations as the best of the year by critics from The Sunday Express and The L.A. Times. It’s not as if Boyd cannot write either for his work in Brazzaville Beach and An Ice-Cream War is in fact incredibly good. How then does he go so horribly wrong with this love story cum thriller?
The problem lies within the bookended thriller elements to his Philippines-based story. For where the main story tells of a time and place rarely investigated, the beginning and end look at a Hollywood we’ve all read about and in a way that fails to convince either of its time, place or even character development. Kay Fischer is a complete contradiction and one that reads completely untrue in 1936. As an architect battling a greed-stricken ex-business partner and a failed marriage to a listless man she watches as her work is destroyed and an odd-ball eccentric enters her life. As the eccentric becomes know to her as Salvador Carriscant, Kay is driven into a world of history and story as he reveals to her that he is in fact her father.
From here the story jumps backward as Carriscant recalls his time as a doctor in the Philippines during the Philippine-American war in the early nineteen-hundreds. Recalling the problems encountered in surgical development and the class issues raised by the invading Americans and both native and Spanish Filipinos, the novel takes an interesting trajectory as it leaves its beginning behind and moves towards a far more interesting path. As Carriscant tells of his dalliances with the wife of an American officer the story becomes somewhat soap-opera driven and the history of the piece plays second-fiddle. This, like the story’s bookends, weakens the novel as a whole and once again brings into question Boyd’s position as a writer of worth. Is he a good writer or rather a good storyteller?
Of course that question is a subjective one and depends solely on the reader. For this reader, however, I long for the honesty and strong hand of an editor evident in his earlier work. The Blue Afternoon would have been an infinitely better novel for that intervention.