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The Dream Lover

William Boyd

‘When he saw her back Lydecker’s brain screamed in silent horror. His hands rose involuntarily to his mouth. The girl looked at him over his shoulder.

“Nay-pom,” she said quietly in explanation. “Nay-pom, GI.”

Reviewed by James Smith

"Fiction, for me, is all about liberating my imagination," writes William Boyd in his introduction to The Dream Lover, "and that liberation seems to function particularly appealingly in the short-story form." This anthology, drawn from previous collections, amply demonstrates Boyd’s felicity with, and love of, the short story. 

Many of Boyd’s stories are playful, written in a jocular and very English style. He describes the miserable burden of the expatriate embassy official in Africa (a popular theme in Boyd’s fiction) and the miserable burden of schoolboy virginity, but he approach is humorous, not grim – a bit like Graham Greene with jokes. He is as comfortable writing from the viewpoint of a young lad witnessing his mother’s infidelity as he is an American pool cleaner who’s taken to the, um, cleaners by his girlfriend. The Destiny of Nathalie ‘X’ is a ruthless dissection of the Hollywood system told in documentary form and featuring a multitude of cleverly realised voices. 

Some characters appear more than once in the book: an English language student in Nice obsesses about girls in two stories, and Morgan Leafy, the aforementioned overweight diplomat twice gets himself entangled in unsatisfactory liaisons with women. 

Ah yes, women. There are plenty of them in this book, and Boyd takes care to describe them – and particularly their chests – in all their nubile glory. 

He saw her lying in a huge rumpled bed, a lace peignoir barely covering two breasts as firm and symmetrical as halved grapefruits;

Louella hugged herself, crushing her full breasts with her forearms;

I could not help noticing the way the taupe silk singlet she wore clung to her breasts.

And if it’s not breasts, it’s bras:

She was wearing only a black bra and pants that contrasted strongly with the pale freckly tan of her firm body;

and – hilariously –

she pulled it down revealing an absurd cut-away bra that offered her nipples like canapés on a cocktail tray

Sometimes the absence of one goes satisfying with the presence of the other: 

I have noticed too, that she never wears a brassière, and the thin material of her T-shirt is moulded closely to her breasts. 

This facet of Boyd’s writing gives his stories a slightly dated locker-room feel and highlights the problem of gathering together stories originally published across a wide variety of magazines and journals over a long period of time. Read one at a time, the stories’ breast element (for want of a better phrase) is barely (ha ha) noticed; over the length of the collection, it starts to look as though Boyd’s liberated imagination has settled somewhere warm and soft. 

It would, of course, be wrong to pigeonhole this collection as the droolings of a succession of oversexed protagonists. Boyd is not without his experimental side, twice playing with the idea of the unreliable narrator; bringing Wittgenstein to life as a character; and using the diary form in the peculiar Extracts from the Journal of Flying Officer J

In spite of the levity of much of Boyd’s writing, it is interesting that the most moving story in this collection is devoid of any humour or tricks. On the Yankee Station manages to be both a meditation on the horror of war in general, and a gripping story of a few of the people caught up in its whirlwind. 

The Dream Lover, then, is many things: light, witty and funny; occasionally dark; tricksy; slightly seedy. Boyd’s mastery of the form means that he has can hide the undoubted effort that has gone into crafting these tales beneath simple exteriors. He has also troubled to tell good stories and draw them to lip-smackingly satisfying conclusions.

(This review was first published in Story)

James Smith worked as a bookseller for ten years before moving to Booktrust, an independent national charity that encourages people of all ages and cultures to enjoy reading. He edits the Booktrust website as well as the Story site and one dedicated to books about London (www.getlondonreading.co.uk). He has just launched www.translatedfiction.org.uk, which promotes translated fiction in the UK.



Publication Date: March 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?: No

Author bio: William Boyd is the author of nine novels, many of them prize winners, and three short story collections. A collection of his non-fiction, Bamboo, is also available. In addition, Boyd has written thirteen screenplays and written and directed the film The Trench.

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What other reviewers thought:

The Guardian

The Independent

The Times