The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth

Competition published on November 8, 2017.

A philandering art dealer tries to give up casual love affairs – seeking only stolen kisses as a substitute. A man recounts his personal history through the things he has stolen from others throughout his life. A couple chart the journey of their five year relationship backwards, from awkward reunion to lovelorn first encounter. And, at the heart of the book, a 24-year old young woman, Bethany Mellmoth, embarks on a year-long journey of wishful and tentative self-discovery.

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth depicts the random encounters that bring the past bubbling to the surface; the impulsive decisions that irrevocably shape a life; and the endless hesitations and loss-of-nerve that wickedly complicate it. These funny, surprising and moving stories are a resounding confirmation of Boyd’s powers as one of our most original and compelling storytellers.

On the Author:

William Boyd was born in 1952 in Accra, Ghana and grew up there and in Nigeria. His first novel, A Good Man in Africa (1981), won the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Somerset Maugham Prize. His other novels include An Ice Cream War (1982, shortlisted for the 1982 Booker Prize and winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize), Stars and Bars (1984), The New Confessions(1987), Brazzaville Beach (1990, winner of the McVitie Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize), The Blue Afternoon (1993, winner of the 1993 Sunday Express Book of the Year Award), Armadillo (1998), Any Human Heart (2002, winner of the Prix Jean Monnet) and Restless (2006, winner of the Costa Novel of the Year Award). His latest novel is Sweet Caress (2015). Some seventeen of his screenplays have been filmed, including The Trench(1999), which he also directed, and he is also the author of four collections of short stories: On the Yankee Station (1981), The Destiny of Nathalie ‘X’ (1995), Fascination(2004) and The Dream Lover(2008). He is married and divides his time between London and South West France.

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Paul Burke’s Review:

William Boyd is a master of the short story. I discovered that when I read ‘The Destiny of Nathalie X’ in 1997 (it still makes me laugh). The nine stories collected in The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth are not great but they are very good. This is a challenging and intelligent read. True to the Chekhovian ethos, these are stories of life as the great leveller. Rich or poor, although the characters here are mostly middle class and arty, it is chance and randomness that derails hopes and dreams: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft a-gley”.

The clash between characters trying to put some direction and structure into life with the fateful intervention of events and other people is at the heart of this book. These stories are very true to life full of hope, pathos, tragedy, humour and even in one case a descent into mental illness. The characters engender empathy, disgust, sympathy and approbation. The theme of dreams runs through the tales. The narrators have hopes for the future, desires and other lives they want to live, but also delusions and nightmares. From the vignette (neat observations on moments in time) to the full blown tale of Bethany Mellmoth, each story echoes life’s real struggles.

It’s Christmas and Bethany is in a quandary. She wants to move on with her life but is caught up between her long divorced parents and their mutual enmity. She has no idea how complicated things are going to get. This is one part of the novella-length story of Bethany Mellmoth that is at the heart of this collection. Bethany mistakes action for progress and meddling in others’ lives for being decisive and looking forward. Ultimately, the complete story of Bethany Mellmoth is one of a young woman of her times. Her fears revolve around how to get a job, how to find somewhere to live and how to have good relationships. Her hopes and dreams are nebulous and vague. It is a complex and modern tale. My other favourite stories include ‘Unsent Letters’, a descent into depression and mental illness revealed in a few short letters never sent to the intended recipients. ‘The Things I Stole’, ‘Humiliation’ and ‘Camp K101’ all have a kind of poetic balance that is very satisfying. ‘Meredith and Max’ is ostensibly the tale about two ex-lovers reflecting on the past at a chance meeting years later. Underlying their encounter is what might have been (the path not taken) and the answers are not quite what you might think. I was less enamoured of ‘The Man Who Liked Kissing Women’; I thought some of the descriptions were a little off, but even so the heart of the story is true.

I think this is an ideal book for a literary readers group. I was charmed, amused, intrigued, saddened and provoked by the stories. Perhaps one measure of my enjoyment was that I would love to know how Bethany is getting on at some point in the future. Did she learn from her experience?

Paul Burke 4/5

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd
Viking 9780241295878 hbk Nov 2017

 

 

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