Monday, September 12, 2011


Ordinary Thunderstorms, William Boyd, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2010, 403 pp

William Boyd is Scottish by descent, was born in Ghana, and educated in Scotland and France. He completed a PhD in literature at Oxford. He is to my thinking a hybrid, an intellectual who has written a dozen novels, won awards but is considered British because he lives there part of the time. (You will see where I am going with this.) I have always been curious about his books, though Ordinary Thunderstorms, his 12th novel, is the first I have read. It won't be the last.

Recently I have come across several discussions on various lit blogs about highbrow vs lowbrow novels and whether or not literary fiction is passe because it doesn't sell well. Some see a trend where literary authors are trying their hands at genre fiction is an effort to sell more copies of their novels. Others see it as a marketing ploy by publishers in an effort to sell more books.

I find most of this speculation to be hogwash, though I am pretty sure marketing personnel are the key suspects. After all, it is their job. I think an author should write what he or she wants to write, should experiment, not always write the same story over and over for the sake of fans, income or profits. Basically, if an author can write well, I will read just about any novel by that author despite subject matter or genre.

William Boyd has a pretty solid reputation as a literary writer. Ordinary Thunderstorms was marketed as a "literary mystery about crime and punishment." See what I mean? Well, it is tremendously exciting, it does involve murder, crime, the dastardly side of big pharma, and the underbelly of London. The violence is brutal and the mystery is complex. Not one truly admirable character inhabits its pages.

However, the novel is about identity. Adam Kindred has returned to the country of his birth after many years in the United States. He is in London to interview for a job. A respected and successful climatologist, he has made a mess of his personal life. While he intends to start anew in London he was surely not planning the drastic transformation he undergoes.

Within 24 hours he is a prime suspect for a murder he did not commit. He makes the decision to go "underground" for a while until he figures out what to do. He goes about as far underground as a person can go in a major metropolis, sleeping in a park, begging for food, and becoming a man with no social identity.

In an interview, William Boyd says his intention was to write about what happens to a person who loses everything that makes him who he is. One thing that happens is that a person who loses his social identity finds he still has a self. Adam is intelligent, resourceful, often impulsive and foolish, a risk taker where people he cares for are involved. His innate goodness and humanity bring him up against a couple of true psychopathic personalities. His intelligence and something like bravery make him a Dickensian character in a modern world.

William Boyd calls no attention to himself as an author, but in straightforward prose tells us a powerful and exciting tale full of heart while it is steeped in all manner of human degradation.

In no way would I call the novel lowbrow. I suppose one could read it just for the thriller aspect, as Boyd does not write in any sort of wordy or obscure manner. He is certainly several cuts above Brad Thor, David Baldacci, and the like. Does that mean he is highbrow?

(Ordinary Thunderstorms is available in hardcover or paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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