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Appearances are deceptive: Trio, by William Boyd, reviewed

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

Trio William Boyd

Penguin/Viking, pp.302, 18.99

Talbot Kydd, film producer; Anny Viklund, American actress; Elfrida Wing, novelist; these make the trio of the title. Private lives are the issue. Wing’s long-suffering agent tells her if you want to know what’s going on in people’s heads, ‘behind those masks we all wear — then read a novel’. The main setting of Trio is Brighton in revolutionary 1968. The actress says: ‘I’m meant to be a famous film star who’s making a film in Brighton.’ That’s the core of the novel.

William Boyd is one of our best contemporary storytellers; remember An Ice-cream War and Restless. He tells this morality tale with sustained humour; remember the Nat Tate hoax. His references to shooting a film (‘how incredibly boring it is to be on a film set’) and to the publishing world reflect his own experiences. The result is authenticity in tone and presentation.

Interest lies in what is behind the mask. Kydd, because of his wealth, can lead a private life that leaves his wife stranded in ignorance of his true character. Viklund has a hidden past, concerned with her divorced husband (who has become a hunted terrorist) and with an Algerian Parisian lover (a radical philosopher). Wing’s previous novel, of considerable repute, was published a decade earlier, and she struggles to regain her writer’s touch. Married to the film director Reggie, ‘secure in the castle of his own ego’, she resorts to alcohol. Her preferred tipple is vodka, which she decants into a Sarson’s white vinegar bottle; subterfuge is all. She admires Virginia Woolf and wants to write a novel about the suicide’s last day. A Woolf expert she talks to, who refers to the novel ‘as if it were some kind of unpleasant disease’, is sceptical; trying to write a novel ‘is a long and bumpy road’.

Boyd’s imagery is entertainingly vivid. The literary agent sits back and reveals ‘the medicine ball that was his belly’. Kydd suffers ‘the sonic version’ of the suburbs — ‘barking dogs, the annoying buzz of an electric hedge-trimmer, the chimes of a distant ice cream van’. Deception is needed to keep inner lives private. Kydd is assaulted by the Algerian philosopher. Various excuses are given for a split lip: he ‘slipped getting out of the bath’, ‘a squash racket hit him in the mouth’.

Trio embraces comedy, tragedy and redemption. It succeeds impressively because of its dramatic, often sensational, revelations.

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