Trio is about double lives. Three characters are central to it: Talbot Kydd, a middle-aged film producer; Elfrida Wing, a novelist with writer’s block; and Anny Viklund, a glamorous young actress. What brings them together is the making of a film in Brighton in high summer 1968.
The late 1960s have been enjoying something of a literary vogue this year: vibrantly chronicled in Craig Brown’s Beatles biography, One Two Three Four; gaudily resurrected in David Mitchell’s novel Utopia Avenue. Trio’s return to the period has a triple motive: to let the sunshine in again on its psychedelic euphoria, to highlight its political hinterland, and to spotlight gay liberation after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.
The film, with its camply whimsical title, “Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon”, and the banana-yellow Mini in which its lovers zip around Brighton, her purple kaftan glinting with tiny mirrors, his cerise hussar’s jacket matched by red boots, snazzily evokes the era. As William Boyd’s earlier fiction has shown — his depiction of the electric excitements of the 1920s Berlin film world in The New Confessions (1987), his ironic take on Hollywood in his short story The Destiny of Nathalie ‘X’ (1995) — cinema fascinates him.
Trio sends an affably satiric shimmer over the making of its film, with the never-nonplussed Talbot adroitly manoeuvring his way through a maze of complications: ceaseless rewrites, grotesque miscastings, preposterous demands from investors, an absconding key performer.
Some of the figures involved seem like comic stereotypes from central casting: Dorian Villiers, a booming thespian trying to reboot his career; Sylvia Slaye, a cleavage-and-wink sexpot from saucy 1950s screen romps, now amply past her curvaceous prime. But the plot keeps things moving along entertainingly. At the same time, deeper concerns are broached.
An epigraph from Chekhov, “Most people live their real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy”, indicates Trio’s main theme: duplicity. Simulation, an essential component in film-making, pervades the book. Fraud, chicanery, covert theft, surreptitious adultery and fake friendship lurk. Names can’t be taken on trust. Rousingly billed as Troy Blaze, the film’s lead is Nigel Farthingly from Swindon. The film-maker exotically upgrades from Reggie to Rodrigo. Jacques Soldat, a preening Parisian intellectual, was once Mehdi Duhameldeb.
Talbot, a closeted homosexual, has another name too. As “Mr Eastman”, unknown to the wife he has lived with in “manufactured intimacy” for 26 years, he keeps a clandestine flat in Primrose Hill where he can photograph male models found by placing coded ads in magazines. Leading a double life, he approvingly notes that “there were two words in Japanese to describe the self . . . a word for the self that existed in the private realm and another, completely different, word for the self that existed in the world”.
Talbot’s situation is paralleled by those of Elfrida and Anny. The former, whose talent has dried up as her eagerness for drink has welled up, is concealing an alcoholic lifestyle that begins with breakfast tipplings of vodka slyly stored in Sarson’s White Vinegar bottles. Anny, sustaining her equilibrium with Equanil pills, is struggling to hide the return of a nightmare from her past: her ex-husband, now a terrorist hunted by the FBI.
In a thriller-like narrative about an insurance expert obsessed with armoury, Boyd’s 1998 novel Armadillo explored the urge to feel safely shielded and the way a social carapace can become more encumbrance than protection. Trio treats the same themes in a more relaxed style. Although one of its storylines takes a darker turn than might have been expected, its prevailing tone is jaunty and its conclusion optimistic. Full of neat phrases (“Brighton’s gull-clawed air”) and quirkily funny scenes (between takes naked actors in a porn film grouse about the rise in local vandalism), it’s an elating read.
Review from the Sunday Times.
Viking £18.99 pp345