For the September meeting of the Book group at Muswell Hill Oxfam Bookshop we read Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (2010). Superficially, this novel is a fast-paced thriller with a typical plot– a young man acts stupidly, finds himself under threat from a killer and the forces of the law, goes into hiding, meets a variety of underworld characters, solves the mystery and re-discovers himself.
As a group who have read and enjoyed William Boyd’s earlier novels, especially A Good Man in Africa (1981), An Ice Cream War (1982) and Brazzaville Beach (1990), this novel generated a sense of disappointment. It has a similar theme to Armadillo (1998), the reinvention of identity. But, once we started to discuss it our opinions changed. We all agreed that the story has an internal life that holds your attention and imagination and that this was down to Boyd’s skill as a writer.
Our dissatisfaction came from a sense that there are too many underdeveloped or unresolved sub-plots, too many hares are set running and never caught. The descriptions of the work of the Thames River Police were convincing and we wanted to know more. Was this theme developed simply to continue the motif of the River Thames? Similarly, the Church of John Christ with its free meals, dubious funding and indefatigable preacher, was a creation we all enjoyed . But wondered why Adam Kindred, the ‘hero’, was offered the job of accountant if the author did not intend to develop this as a sub-plot?
Many of the characters come to life on the page, but their stories are not progressed, let alone resolved. We considered Ingram Fryzer, the CEO of a ‘drug production company’, to be the most complex and human character in the book. His well-meaning incompetence tended to act as a contrast to, or respite from, the physical drive of the novel. Finally, the brutal commercialism of the ‘big pharma’ industry that he is not capable of dealing with brings about his downfall – although Boyd, cynically, indicates that it is a well cushioned downfall.
We were not convinced that Adam Kindred was, or needed to be a climatologist, this part of his identity seemed to have been shed before the action of the book began. This comment led us to consider the main theme of the book – does the act of re-inventing one’s identity lead to a change in the idea of ‘self’? We were divided in our opinions; the pivot of our discussion was around Adam’s murder of the blackmailer, Turpin – would an otherwise ‘good’ man carry out such an act, or had his sense of self been corrupted by his experiences.
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