The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

Light entertainment…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

William Boyd is one of my long-time favourite authors. Although I’ve always found him a bit hit or miss, when he’s on form he’s one of the best. As a novelist he tends to write long books, full of layers and depth and detail, and with wonderful characterisation. But I’ve never come across any short stories by him before, so was intrigued to see how his style would work in that form.

The stories in this collection are largely unconnected, though many of them have a common theme of artists who have experienced some form of failure in their professional or personal lives. To some degree, they’re mainly character studies, though each has a plot. They vary in length from quite short up to novella length and, for me, the longer they were, the better they were, so I guess that answers my question about his style suiting the format. There’s a lot of humour in them, some of it mildly black, and truthfully, not much depth. I found them enjoyable enough to read but rather disappointingly light – although I’m sure my disappointment is mainly a result of my expectations of him based on his novels.

However, the characterisation is great. Even in the shorter ones, he creates fully formed individuals, with enough background for each to explain why they are as they are. He also shows a lot of originality in both subject matter and structure – everything from a UN soldier in the Congo to an out-of-work actor carrying a mysterious substance on a trip to Scotland, and from a love story told backwards to a series of unsent letters. Here’s a flavour of some that I enjoyed most…

The Road Not Taken – the story of a love affair that begins with how it ends. It then jumps back through time, giving snapshots of the relationship at various points, and ends on the day the lovers met. The ending felt a little too much like a neat ‘twist’, perhaps, but otherwise I found this one very well told and quite moving.

Humiliation – One to frighten all of us reviewers, professional or amateur! A novelist’s career has foundered after a prominent reviewer trashed his second book. Having run off to France to lick his wounds, the novelist is at first horrified to find the reviewer is staying in the same place. But then he begins to see the possibility of taking a little revenge… Lots of humour in this one, and a feeling that Boyd might be taking a tongue-in-cheek pop at some reviewers who’ve been less than enthusiastic about some of his books…

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth – the title story is novella length and tells of a young woman who is determined to do something creative in her life, but she’s not sure what. We follow her as she tries but fails to write a book, to act, to become a professional photographer, and so on. Again I didn’t feel there was much depth to it, and it just faded away at the end with no real resolution. But again humorous, and great characterisation – Boyd is one of the few male authors who I think creates really convincing women.

The Vanishing Game – an out-of-work actor is offered £1000 to take a jar of holy water to a church on the west coast of Scotland. But he quickly discovers he’s being followed, and begins to wonder what’s really in the jar. By far my favourite story, this is an old-fashioned adventure in the style of The 39 Steps – indeed, there are similarities as the hero takes to the wilds of Scotland in a bid to throw off his pursuers.

William Boyd

So in conclusion, for me, the collection doesn’t have the depth that makes his novels stand out from the crowd, but there’s still plenty to enjoy overall. A lighter read than I expected, very well written, of course, with the emphasis on humour for the most part and with some excellent characterisation, so despite my slight disappointment, I’d still recommend it for those times when one just wants to be entertained.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK.

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27 thoughts on “The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

  1. It does sound like a solid collection, FictionFan, even if it’s not the very best Boyd has done. And it’s interesting to see how he’s put the stories together, although they’re not tightly linked. I’ve always found that short stories can be an interesting way to sample an author’s style. At the same time, they’re often not at all the same as the author’s novels, if that makes any sense…

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    • I reckon I’d probably have enjoyed these more if I didn’t have expectations based on his novels – they’re certainly entertaining. There were several in fact that I felt would have made good novels if they’d been expanded. For me, it’s Boyd’s depth that makes his books so good, and depth is pretty hard to achieve in short format…

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    • It was disappointing for me, but I think that’s partly because of my expectations of him based on his books. Yes, it’s rare for a collection not to have a few weaker stories in it…

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    • I recently listened to the audio of Brazzaville Beach narrated by Harriet Walter and loved it, so that’s my current favourite! But I’ve enjoyed many over the years – Any Human Heart. An Ice Cream War, Waiting for Sunrise… I’ve still got many to read though. What are your favourites?

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      • I haven’t got to Brazzaville Beach yet! I think Any Human Heart is superb, and really enjoyed Restless as well. He’s one of those effortlessly good storytellers, whether he’s doing a fun thriller or a more ‘literary’ offering.

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        • If Restless is the one I’m thinking of – about the female spy – then I enjoyed it too. Yes, it’s his storytelling I love too, along with his great characterisation. I think he ‘does’ female characters better than any other man I can think of (and better than some women authors! 😉 )

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  2. I haven’t read this one, yet it sounds pretty interesting. The four shorts you’ve included here sound especially good — yikes! I’m intrigued what happened to that reviewer now!

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    • Haha – the reviewer one has made me very cautious about going for lunch with authors… 😉 Yes, a lot of the stories are interesting and many of them are quite humorous, so an entertaining collection overall…

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  3. The synopsis you offered for a few of the stories sound really good-especially the one about the holy water! If I’ve learned anything from reading lots of books, it’s that you should never let a stranger convince you to carry something for them on your travels-EVER!

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  4. The plots for the short stories you’ve featured are intriguing. For someone who hasn’t yet read anything by William Boyd (he is on the list), starting with this means I won’t miss the greatness you’ve experienced from his novels, plus am always happy to enjoy light entertainment 🙂

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  5. I love stories about artistic debutantes, possibly because I relate to them. I’m not so much a dabbler as I am someone who masters the basics of an art form–ceramics, drawing, violin, writing–and then get frustrated and go read a book!

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  6. I wondered how this collection would fare with you – Of course I particularly enjoyed the story about the book reviewer so it was good to be reminded of that one here. I’m also a fan of darker humour so Boyd delivered an entertaining if loosely connected collection of short stories.

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    • I did enjoy them, but maybe expected a bit more because I’ve loved some of his books so much. He often uses a lot of humour which is one of the things I like most about him. I still have several of his books to catch up… one day! 😀

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    • Definitely readable! I’m pretty sure my mild disappointment is due more to my expectations than the book. I always think Boyd’s characterisation is his major strength – I tend to remember the characters long after I’ve forgotten the plot…

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