The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd

Review published on October 23, 2017.

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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