Book Review for “The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth” by William Boyd.
This is actually a collection of seven short stories plus two that are novella length – the first of those is the titular story, and the other one is “The Vanishing Game: An Adventure…” The short stories included here are:
- The Man Who Liked Kissing Women – where a man decides that stopping at kissing other women isn’t really cheating on his wife.
- The Road Not Taken – a chance meeting between ex-lovers makes them reminiscent of their shared past.
- Camp K 101 – about a German army officer based in Africa and the monkeys in the jungle outside his camp – especially one in particular.
- Humiliation – a down on his luck, newly divorced novelist gets his revenge on a literary critic who was particularly nasty about his writing.
- Unsent Letters – exactly as the title infers, and thank goodness for that!
- The Things I Stole – again, as the title infers, but with a twist.
- The Diarists – three days of diary entries from five connected people, around an event they all attend.
It has been a long while since I read any Boyd, but from what I remember, I certainly didn’t recall his use of irony and wit, which the seven short stories are filled with to the brim, mixed with some pathos along the way. Each one is just detailed enough for us to understand the characters and their motivations, but concise enough for us to get the “zinger” in the end. As I’ve said before, there is a true art in writing a really good short story, and not all novelists can pull it off. There’s a special balance that needs to be struck between what to include and what to leave out and how to get the story to a conclusion that keeps the reader thinking. I have to say that Boyd certainly achieved this in all seven of these stories, and quite successfully so, I may add. Of them, I’d say that “The Diarists” was the least favorite of them, while my favorites were “Humiliation” and “Unsent Letters.” That isn’t to say I didn’t like the others, but just slightly less so.
Regarding the two novellas, these were both fascinating reads. In the titular one, we watch young Bethany Mellmoth move across her life over the course of one year. She moves in and out of her mother’s home (sometimes by choice, and sometimes by force), while she moves between jobs, school, and men all of which seem to start out with great expectations, that ultimately disappoint. Bethany’s dreams, of course, are those hopes she has each time she starts out in a new direction in her life. I might call this a coming-of-age story, except that Bethany doesn’t seem to be any more self-aware at the end of this year than she was at its onset. In fact, Bethany isn’t really a very likeable protagonist, but we do end up pitying her, and wanting to slap her for some of her choices. It isn’t that I didn’t like this story, but Boyd does seem to have a pretty negative outlook for these types of rudderless youth, which is pretty sad.
However, the final story “The Vanishing Game: An Adventure…” was the return of the Boyd I knew and loved. In this story, a struggling actor gets the chance to earn £1,000 just to take a jug of holy water up north to a christening. The owner has broken her ankle, so she can’t drive there herself, and she can’t risk putting it in the hold of a flight, since it might break. What starts out as being a stroke of good financial luck, ends up being something quite sinister. I won’t say more since I don’t want to give anything more away, but this was my favorite story of this book. I especially liked how Alec Dunbar, the protagonist in this story, uses his experiences appearing as an extra in B action movies to figure out how to react to the things happening to him – very clever.
By the way, Boyd does connect some of these stories together, but not all of them. For example, one of the movies that Alec speaks of, appears in “Unsent Letters” where a producer is trying to get a A-List actor on board so he can green-light the film. Also, that film was supposed to be based on one of the books that the novelist in “Humiliation” wrote. There are a couple more connections but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself. Overall, I do recommend this collection very warmly, and I think it will appeal to a wide range of readers. That’s why I’m giving it a very healthy four and a half stars out of five (and I hope that this positive review means that I won’t end up like that mean literary critic in “Humiliation”).
Viking released “The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth” by William Boyd in 2017. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), or Thriftbooks.com, as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I purchased my signed copy of the paperback released in 2018 by Penguin UK from Foyles in London.