A young Scottish piano-tuner falls in love with a Russian opera singer in fin de siècle Paris. Brodie Moncur is in the city to manage the new continental showroom of the firm for which he works. There he employs a piano virtuoso called John Kilbarron, popularly known as the "Irish Liszt", to show off the merits of the instrument. Kilbarron is having an on-off relationship with the aforementioned diva, Lydia Blum, and she and Brodie soon start a passionate affair.
Brodie is so besotted with his Russian mistress, who goes by the diminutive Lika, that, on their second meeting, he felt "as if his innards were molten - as if he might melt in a puddle of sizzling magma on the floor".
The image suggests that the relationship, while raging, might not end well, and, sure enough, when they first get to talk properly, she shows him her pistol, which she carries in case someone "breaks down my door and tries to ravish me". Those who remember the principle of Chekhov's gun - "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired, otherwise don't put it there" - will not be surprised that it plays a part in what happens next. Tragedy strikes on a concert tour of Russia, and the couple must go on the run from Kilbarron's devilish brother, Malachi, who's discovered the pair in bed together and now, Lika insists, wants to kill them.
A few years ago, William Boyd wrote what's known as a "continuation novel" in Ian Fleming's James Bond series, and this new novel proceeds in a similarly picaresque fashion as Brodie and Lydia try to stay one step ahead of Malachi by hopping around the continent and even back to Scotland for a while, where, in a curious attempt at staying in the shadows, she gives a series of well-publicised recitals. It ends in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India.
Brodie seems a likeable fellow, if a little dull. As for Lika, it's hard to tell. She's somewhat two dimensional, mainly seen as she is through his eyes, as an object of desire and mystery, because he remains unsure throughout why she exerts such a powerful hold on him. Perhaps that's the point. Love is Blind, as the novel's title attests. Brodie sees what he wants to see, and it's never clear that his devotion is reciprocated. The novel even has a subtitle, The Rapture of Brodie Moncur, which seems to suggest that love may have made him lose his mind a little. He is, after all, the son of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, who at one point denounces his own son from the pulpit as a "scarcely human being" who will be "damned by his corrupt self love"; and who's to say in the end that he's wrong? In an increasingly godless world, it could be that love has, for Brodie, taken the place of religion.
Boyd was selected in 1983 as one of Granta magazine's Best Of Young British Novelists list, and it may seem odd to suggest that he's never really fulfilled that promise compared to some of the other names on the list, such as Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Pat Barker or Ian McEwan.
There have been 15 novels and five short-story collections, as well as a scattering of plays, screenplays, non-fiction works. He's won numerous prizes. But there's something about Boyd that has always felt slightly unnecessary. His books never feel essential in the way that the best works of his contemporaries do, and this book is no exception. It's all very tidy and efficient, but he never really lets himself go.
There are numerous sex scenes in Love is Blind, but it's as if even they are written with one careful eye on not winning the Bad Sex Prize. "He opened his mouth and the kiss was conceived and fully executed," is how the lovers' first embrace is described. It's hard to imagine a less seductive sentence, unless it's the one where the couple share a clandestine meeting by a river in Russia: "Then they went to it."
The story has a generous smattering of melodrama. There are confrontations, duels, secret marriages. Malachi, who follows the couple "like a hell hound", is a proper villain of the old school, who tells them at one point that "you are my creatures... until I tell you that you are released". This all could have worked much more deliciously if Boyd had thrown himself into his subject matter, but there's little tension in the telling. It's as if the author constantly holds back, and his prose is not distinctive enough to compensate for the predictable story.
As a writer, he's always had a reverence for Chekhov, an account of whose final unwritten play about a man who "either loves a woman who does not love him or is unfaithful to him" forms an epigraph to this novel, but he seems to misunderstand that famous rule about a gun.
He remembers that it must be fired at some point, but not the playwright's true purpose, which was about removing all superfluous clutter from the narrative. This novel doesn't do that, which slows it down enormously, to the point where, ultimately, it becomes dispensable.