William Boyd's 'Trio'

Review by Amanda Ellison

The number three often makes an appearance, and takes on some kind of significance, in culture and literature. This literary trope has been deployed skilfully by  William Boyd in his new comedy – or tragi-comedy, rather – Trio. The titular trio are author Elfrida, film producer Talbot, and popular young actress Anny. Their stories are interwoven by their involvement in the production of a ludicrously-titled film in 1960s Brighton.  All three have very public faces they present to the world, yet all are playing a part and keeping their secret selves hidden. The concept of the trio takes on another dimension in the novel’s three-part structure: Duplicity, Surrender, and  Escape. Will these characters escape the stranglehold of sustaining the secrets that could ruin them?

So, the historical and cultural backdrop of this book is implicitly relevant to the plot; this was an era of change and turmoil: the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Paris riots, anti-Vietnam protests, the legalisation of homosexual acts. Likewise, the characters must also experience change – whether for better or worse. The opening of Trio is, as the reader later realises, utterly poignant. It begins with Elfrida, waking up in the morning and being confronted by the reality of her daily life. She is a one-time successful novelist but has suffered from writer’s block for ten years; her husband, director of the aforementioned film, indulges in extra-marital affairs and is completely oblivious to his wife’s plummeting sense of self-worth.  It’s hardly surprising, then, Elfrida finds her daily escape in the demon drink, which she believes she is concealing by decanting it into Sarson’s Vinegar bottles. She gets through rather a lot of white vinegar. Talbot is the film’s 60-something producer, the epitome of respectability. But, as a closet homosexual, he wrangles with this duality. And Anny, the rising young star with seemingly so much to live far, is about to have her past catch up with her, in the form of her terrorist ex-husband who turns up demanding money and emotionally exploiting her. Boyd guides us through the shifting drama of these three inner lives, masterfully juxtaposing their secret angst with the comedic antics of the film-making process.  The fluent switch of register is so subtle it is barely noticeable and speaks of a skill that has been well and truly honed.

The epigraph, by Anton Chekhov, really sums up the soul of the book’s theme: ‘Most people live their real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy’.  This is a universal concept that may well resonate with many people and is one of the factors that make this novel immensely readable. The element of humour – albeit black humour – makes this quite dark subject more palatable and relatable. Parallel existence is not a new theme for Boyd, and was mentioned explicitly in Love is Blind.

There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ William Boyd novel but all the hallmarks of his writing will be immediately recognisable to his fans: the often farcical humour, the evocation of character with the most judicious selection of detail, the gradual revelation of plot, and a most compelling style of storytelling.

All are here in Trio.