“I always think a life without complications isn’t really a life,” remarks one of the characters in William Boyd’s riveting new novel. “Love Is Blind” is another of the acclaimed Scottish writer’s life-trajectory works — if not a full cradle-to-grave epic along the lines of “The New Confessions,” “Sweet Caress” and career-high masterpiece “Any Human Heart,” then the nearest thing to it. As Boyd’s main character makes his way in the world, his “complications” mount up and turn into problems which jeopardize his love and endanger his life.
That protagonist is Brodie Moncur. At the beginning of the novel, in Edinburgh in 1894, he is a young, gifted piano tuner. When his employer offers him the position of assistant manager of his piano manufacturing firm in Paris, Brodie seizes the opportunity and rises to the challenge. He revives the fortunes of the company by recruiting the services of piano virtuoso John Kilbarron. After earning the trust of this “Irish Liszt,” Brodie becomes part of his entourage, traveling with him from one country to another.
But then there are the complications. Brodie falls for Kilbarron’s girlfriend and muse, a beautiful Russian soprano called Lika Blum. What starts out as a clandestine love affair in Paris develops into a far more dangerous liaison in St. Petersburg. Eventually, as the 19th century gives way to the 20th, Brodie and Lika are forced to flee Russia and lie low. However, a vengeful hunter hounds them and then closes in, leaving Brodie to go it alone — all the time plagued by fear, heartache, worsening health and the growing realization that he might never be reunited with the love of his life.
Love is blind in this novel, but it is also intense, an all-consuming passion. So, too, is the urge for “blood-for-blood recompense” after a duel, a death and an act of betrayal.
In the book’s final sections, which consist of a desperate cat-and-mouse chase across the continent and beyond, Boyd switches gears, ups the stakes and redeploys the same thrills that powered his two most exciting novels, “Restless” and “Ordinary Thunderstorms.”
Our loyalties, and indeed sympathies, lie always with Brodie. The novel is at its most compelling when he is up against the sour moods or evil machinations of several memorably bad eggs. There is surly swindler Calder Channon, who defrauds his father’s company and pins the blame on Brodie; volatile drunk Kilbarron and his sinister brother Malachi, each of whom has a special relationship with Lika and a particular form of retribution for her illicit lover; and Brodie’s other nemesis, Malky Moncur, “that scheming, manipulative, self-fabulating monster that was his father.”
Boyd has written a novel that manages to be expansive and intimate, potent and poignant. It confidently sprawls across Europe while cunningly tapping into Scottish literature and folklore. It keeps us rapt and emotionally invested. Once again, this maestro hits all the right notes.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Love Is Blind
By: William Boyd.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 369 pages, $26.95.