Book Review: The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

Book - The Dreams of Bethany MellmothA Guest Post by James Fenchurch

When I saw The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, a book by William Boyd that I had not yet read, I seized it without even looking inside, only to discover that it was a collection of short stories. I have not always appreciated this literary form, but I found the collection entirely absorbing.    Some authors create work so rich that, although compelling, I have to put the book down and come up for air, needing time to reflect. The novels of Barbara Kingsolver and Richard Powers affect me in the same way. Here, William Boyd does this with seemingly mundane situations which reveal powerful, dramatic themes of dishonesty, betrayal, desire and humiliation.

Boyd sets each scene swiftly and you find yourself immersed in subtly drawn characters. At the same time, it dawns on you what is actually going on. These are tales of decisions, with both intended and unintended consequences. They are told using both narrative and correspondence, often against the backdrop of the literary scene and the world of art and film-making.

These stories evoke other worlds, whether in terms of class or time, which Boyd achieves by the use of distinctive names for his characters, such as Tarquin, Meredith, Gervase and Raleigh. As a master of changing styles, he takes us from the perspective of a UN soldier guarding an aid distribution centre in Africa, to the life of an aspiring film-maker.

The shorter pieces at the start of the collection are followed by two much longer stories. The first of these, from which the collection takes its title, is a beautifully constructed picture of Bethany Mellmoth’s search for fulfilment in work and relationships. It is only the reader who begins to see the hypocrisy inherent in the condemnation of her mother for similar life decisions.

At one stage she finds herself forced to choose between her long-standing commitment to having lunch on Christmas Day with her mother and the opportunity to see her father, who has suddenly told her he will be flying in from California. Here she breaks the news to her mother:

Do it now, do it now, Bethany says to herself when her mother arrives home from her work. However she waits until her mother is on her third glass of wine before she breaks the news that her ex-husband will be in London on Christmas Day. ‘So that’s why you don’t want to have lunch with me,’ Alannah says, nodding grimly. Bethany explains that Zane is only in the city for twenty-four hours, that he’s going to see his mother in Devon. ‘I don’t want to have lunch with him, particularly,’ Bethany says, ‘but I would like to see him. I haven’t seen him for two years.’  Alannah stares at her in that direct way she has, as if she’s checking my face for tiny blemishes, Bethany thinks – it’s most disconcerting.

In spite of the small space available to the author in each story this is a thoroughly satisfying book. What appears to be a short book is anything but that – like the Tardis, it is inexplicably bigger on the inside than it appears.

Buy The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd