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The first of the Book Marketing Council’s “Best Young British Novelists” promotions in 1983 came at an odd time. The British publishing industry was struggling, mostly due to outdated methods, and a quick and dirty fix was needed. Hence the promotion. And it worked. Well, it did for me at least. Christopher Priest was the only one of the featured writers whose work I was already familiar with (by this time I’d read Philip Norman’s book on The Beatles, Shout!, but I’m not sure I associated the Philip Norman featured in the promotion with the author of that book), but I read the associated issue of Granta cover to cover (one of the few times I can say that of the magazine) and discovered a good handful of writers whose work interested me. For a while after that I would religiously buy each new book by Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Adam Mars-Jones, Ian McEwan, and Graham Swift. I’ve read, with pleasure, the occasional novel by Rose Tremain and Lisa St Aubin de Teran, without consistently following their work, and though I’ve tried the occasional book by Martin Amis I’ve never really got on with his writing. Over the years, I stopped following most of these writers (Ishiguro I dropped quite quickly, then picked up again later and do now follow him). So today only Boyd and Swift are writers whose new work I religiously buy and read.

Which brings me to the latest William Boyd novel, Trio. What I like about Boyd is his storytelling, which is why it is no surprise that along the way he has written a couple of very effective spy stories. He does come up with some quite arresting metaphors and descriptive passages, but in the main his prose can be a little pedestrian. But his control of pace, revelation, drama, is powerful enough to keep you reading even if the writing might limp a little. Even so, I was a little startled by how flat the opening of this novel seemed:

Elfrida Wing stirred, grunted and shifted sleepily in her bed as the summer’s angled morning sun brightened the room, printing a skewed rectangle of lemony-gold light onto the olive-green-flecked wallpaper close by her pillow.

Yeah, that reads like someone trying too hard, like a writing-class exercise in stuffing as many descriptive words as possible into a single sentence. Then you turn the page to the start of chapter two (the chapters are short in this novel, mostly only two or three pages, which is one reason that the lumbering, over-emphatic description feels too much), and you read: “Talbot Kydd woke abruptly from his dream.” Then another couple of pages and another chapter begins: “Anny Viklund woke up and, as she did every morning as consciousness slowly returned, she wondered if this day was going to be the day that she died.”

Three successive chapters beginning in exactly the same way: the full name of the character followed by a description of them waking up. It is laboured, repetitive, and it is hardly the most inspired or inspiring way to introduce the three central characters who make up the Trio of the title. I’ve come to expect fancier footwork than this from Boyd, even at his most pedestrian.

We are well over half way through the novel before it begins to dawn on us what Boyd is doing here. Elfrida is an alcoholic one-time novelist who hasn’t written anything other than fanciful titles for never-to-be-written books in over ten years. At the height of her fame, and to her perennial disgust, she was always called the new Virginia Woolf. It doesn’t help that she can’t stand Woolf’s work, which may be one of the reasons why she stopped writing. But now, between drinks of vodka from the countless old Sarson’s Malt Vinegar bottles she has stashed around the house, she gets an idea for a new novel, one that will lay the old ghost while getting her back into print: She will write a novel about the last day of Virginia Woolf.

Inevitably, she gets no further than the first paragraph, which she rewrites over and over again. A typical example reads:

Virginia Woolf was sleeping. On the wall by her bed a pale parallelogram of lemony early-morning sunlight crept towards her face. When the sunlight hit her eyes, she grunted and turned over, but consciousness had indisputably dawned in her brain and was urging her awake.

The openings of the first three chapters are all variations on the opening of the Virginia Woolf novel. Elfrida herself grunts and shifts with the lemony light. Talbot’s dream figures in several of the putative openings, and his own story that follows will take the form of an awakening to a clearer understanding of what is going on around him (he is a film producer out of step with the modern world of the late-1960s, coming to terms with his own homosexuality, and also coming to recognise that his trusted partner is defrauding him). And Elfrida’s various opening paragraphs always end with Woolf recognising that “this was going to be the last day of her life”, echoing Anny’s own premonition. Anny is a young American film star brought to Britain to add cachet to the film Talbot is currently producing, but she also brings with her a host of troubles, mostly initiated by her former husband who is now a wanted terrorist, and the more she tries to run away from things the fewer places she has to turn, until the story does indeed end in her death.

So we have it: the three interweaving stories that make up this trio are all variations on the last day of Virginia Woolf. Elfrida herself is, of course, the most Woolf-like. At one point, frustrated that no publisher wants the novel she is planning (1968, when most of the novel takes place, was the nadir of interest in the Bloomsbury crowd) and beginning to suffer from DTs, and therefore in a mental state closely resembling that of Virginia Woolf in March 1941,she buys a secondhand fur coat, stuffs stones into the pocket, and plans to march into the Ouse near Woolf’s home at Rodmell. A farcical intervention stops this happening, and she ends up drying out in a religious establishment outside Taunton.

If Elfrida offers the closest parallel to Woolf, Talbot and Anny are the more engaging characters. This is because Elfrida has been defeated, knows it, and is complicit in her own downfall. Talbot and Anny are both bemused by events but are still trying to keep ahead of the game. Talbot succeeds, Anny doesn’t, perhaps ending as Woolf herself did (thought there is an unresolved mystery here), but at least there is more sense of them playing an active part in their own lives.

Thinking of Elfrida, I wonder how Boyd pitched this novel to his publisher. Things have moved on since 1968, the Bloomsberries are fashionable again, so to that extent he had an easier job. But still: “It’s a novel about the last day of Virginia Woolf, only it is set in 1968 and Woolf never appears.” Actually, Leonard Woolf is seen at a distance once, still living at Monk’s House and irrascibly chasing away would-be sightseers. In the end it’s a clever book, but perhaps more clever than good, a satisfying intellectual confection rather than something more engaging.