'Ordinary Thunderstorms': a climatologist hip-deep in trouble
A review of British novelist William Boyd's new novel, "Ordinary Thunderstorms," a thriller about a climatologist who witnesses a murder. Reviewer Michael Upchurch writes that it's a washout compared to some of his previous novels.
Special to The Seattle Times
by William Boyd
Harper, 403 pp., $26.99
William Boyd's "The New Confessions" (1988) and "Any Human Heart" (2002) offer near-irrefutable proof that he's one of the best British novelists at work today. "Ordinary Thunderstorms," however, suggests his fiction-writing efforts can be bewilderingly uneven.
Where "The New Confessions" and "Any Human Heart" cast wide nets (potted plots for both might read: Charming, flawed narrator covers half the globe while taking on the chaos of the 20th century), Boyd's new novel unfolds over a few months' time in the heart of London. Adam Kindred, a climatologist in his 30s, has come home to England after scandal derails his marriage and academic career in Arizona. In London for a job interview, he chances on a murder scene and makes the worst choices possible. The police are soon after him — and so is the real murderer.
Acting half on desperation, half on canny instinct, Adam disappears into the urban wild: specifically, a "tiny triangular world" of greenery by Chelsea Bridge. When he runs out of cash, he turns to begging. When he runs out of food, he eats a seagull. When he gets thirsty, he drinks out of the Thames!
He uses no credit cards. He seeks no help from officials. "That's how you disappear in the twenty-first century," says his would-be killer after finding the Chelsea Bridge hideout. "You just refuse to take part in it."
The most valuable item in Adam's possession is some paperwork belonging to the murder victim: an allergist-immunologist. A bigtime pharmaceutical corporation is willing to do anything to get hold of it, and it's a little too easy to guess why. In the meantime, Adam has to deal with his pursuer (an ex-military hired assassin), a "good Samaritan" streetwalker (who winds up beating him up) and an oddball charity outfit called the Church of John Christ.
Adam, amazed at his own adaptability, adjusts to his dismal circumstances while taking on new identities and investigating the conspiracy that has reduced his life to tatters.
The mechanics of the plot are certainly intricate, but Boyd's writing has never been so lackluster, or lapsed so often into cliché. One chapter ends with Adam's would-be killer resolving to get the murder done "with extreme prejudice." Another chapter opens with the streetwalker contemplating "the power and entrancement" of the Thames at night — followed by Boyd's clunky caveat: "Not that she would have articulated it that way."
The novel's title is from a passage in a book on storm dynamics: "Ordinary thunderstorms have the capacity to transform themselves into multi-cell storms of ever growing complexity." That may describe Adam's continually escalating crises. But Boyd, who usually is wizardly in exploring unlikely subject matter (chimpanzee wars, sleep therapy, etc.), does surprisingly little with Adam's field of expertise. And his handling of evil pharmaceutical companies pales next to John le Carré's in "The Constant Gardener."
Go to "The New Confessions" or "Any Human Heart" if you want to read him at his best.
Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.
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