Article published on November 13, 2017.
In the second of our new series of reading group guides, Paul Burke poses some questions about William Boyd’s The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth:
William Boyd is one of the best loved British authors and his new collection of short stories would make an ideal choice for reading groups. A review of the book and a feature on William Boyd have previously been published on Nudge, which serve as helpful accompaniments to this guide. Happy reading!
- The story of Bethany Mellmoth arguably defines the collection. How would you describe Bethany? Why do Bethany’s attempts to organise her life go astray? How would you characterise her relationships? Does Bethany give proper weight to the problems in her own life as well as the issues facing those around her?
- Life could be said to be a little absurd at times and Boyd certainly uses humour in his stories even when they are serious. Why do you think that is?
- Why do you think Boyd structures some of his stories in a way that creates a poetic balance (for example, the releasing of the monkey in ‘Camp K101’)?
- Boyd varies his style, often experimenting. Does this make the collection a better read?
- Boyd has never written autobiographical stories, nor are his topics necessarily familiar to him before he begins researching. His characters are varied. Does he create authentic voices? Does it matter that a lot of the characters could be characterised as middle class and artsy? Further, lots of his protagonists are female. Is Boyd strong on female characters?
- What is your favourite story from the collection and why does it stand out for you?
- Does a short story collection have to have a unity of purpose, like a good concept album, to make it whole?
- The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth is Boyd’s fourth short story collection. Reviewers have noted themes in his work in the past, for instance, in On the Yankee Station (discovery/coming of age) and Fascination (fascination and obsession). What are the themes that emerge in The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth?
- Is it fair to say that dreams feature in all the stories, in the form of hopes, fantasies, ideals, delusions, disappointments and even nightmares?
- The randomness of life is a key theme of Boyd’s fiction. He seems to be saying that no matter how well planned life is, chance intervenes and things are irrevocably altered. Do you sense this in the short stories here? Do you see secrets and revelations as one of the catalysts for change? How do you think Boyd manages to make his stories appear to be random (as life is) when in fact they are plotted (artifice)?
- The concise nature of the prose in a good short story means that more has to be read between the lines (to extrapolate meaning). Do you think short stories represent a more complex challenge for the reader? What does reading between the lines mean to you?
- Boyd has said that the novel is the best place to find out how people really think. Does this also apply to short stories?