William Boyd’s Love is Blind brings late 19th century Europe to life, from the cold, grey streets of Edinburgh to the grandiose parties of Imperial Russia as it follows the bespectacled Scottish piano tuner, Brodie Moncur, through his remarkable life.
Often reflecting on outcomes before explaining the protagonist’s extraordinary journey that leads to them, Boyd masterfully makes the pre-described destinations seem once more surprising, yet entirely logical. Such a technique is shown from the first page in which a mysterious letter from the Andaman Islands in 1906 announces the impending arrival of an assistant, only for the selfsame assistant to appear on the next page, 12 years earlier, in a piano shop in Edinburgh. Yet, once Brodie arrives in the Indian Empire, it seems the only possible place for his life to have taken him.
While Boyd’s descriptions of the grandeur of some of Europe’s great cities at the turn of the twentieth century make one wish they had been born a century earlier, Brodie himself remains relatable, yet oddly frustrating: a dreamer whose romantic ideas lead to a mixture of success and foolish mistakes.
With an all-too-short focus on his troubled childhood pushed to the back of the mind, Brodie’s work in Paris sets the novel’s main plot into action as he meets the mercurially talented, but ageing, pianist, John Kilbarron. As Kilbarron accepts Brodie into his circle, he is introduced to his brutishly calculating brother, Malachi, and his stunningly beautiful Russian lover, Lydia ‘Lika’ Blum. From his first sighting of her, Brodie falls hopelessly in love with Lika and has soon started an affair with her under Kilbarron’s nose. However, while Lika is the one who initiates the relationship, his love for her struggles to grow convincingly beyond a lustful obsession, with encounters focusing on their physical attraction more than anything else. Such a feeling is only strengthened when Lika admonishes Brodie by saying, ‘You don’t see me as I really am’, leaving the reader frustrated that the novel’s focalisation through Brodie’s eyes limits their impression of its most complex character to little more than a pretty face.
Boyd writes his men much more convincingly, with the tortured genius of John and the threatening cunning of Malachi giving a tension to their scenes that leaves the reader on edge.
In following one character’s life journey, Boyd beautifully mimics life’s many twists and turns, with Brodie’s opinions changing as the text develops and intriguing figures, such as the St Petersburg ambassador George Vere, entering and fading as acquaintances are bound to do.
Therefore, while elements will leave you wanting more, Boyd’s carefully constructed world will have you turning the pages, eager to find out where his burly Scot may journey next.
Image: DeAgostini/Getty Images.