For the successful writer of fiction, there are few more insidious fears than the prospect of running out of material. Even the most indefatigable and prolific of storytellers may be haunted by the possibility that their flow of ideas might one day dry up, leaving them with nothing at all to say that they have not already articulated.
To judge from his latest collection, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, this unenviable eventuality has now caught up with William Boyd. The achievements of Boyd, who has been publishing regularly since 1981, are considerable and diverse. They include an arrestingly funny debut (A Good Man in Africa), one of the wisest, most humane and resonant novels of recent times (Any Human Heart) and – no mean feat this – the best James Bond pastiche so far written (2013’s Solo). Underrated by his peers (doubtless in part because of his pronounced and persistent commercial success), Boyd has always been eloquent, his narratives memorably stylish.
The new book, however, is – palpably and, to the admirer, disappointingly – the work of an author whose creative reserves have reached the point of chronic depletion. There is in these pages nothing, not a single structure, motif or effect, which Boyd has not already produced more successfully elsewhere.