There are so many books in the world today, and so many writers, that it’s easy for names that should be familiar to slip by unnoticed. William Boyd was a bright shining young star of literature in the early 80s, won all sorts of prizes, has continued to publish acclaimed novels and screenplays, and yet his name rang only the dullest of bells when I first chanced upon Bamboo. It’s a shame really.
Bamboo is a fat collection of reviews and essays collected over thirty years. It is divided into roughly equal sections devoted to: Life, Literature, Art, Africa, Film, Television, and People and Places. There’s an inevitable unevenness that results from collecting together such disparate subjects. It’s not that Boyd writes better about one thing than another, but the material was written for publishing in several entirely different kinds of books or newspaper. There’s a kind of bumpiness that comes from switching between short book reviews culled from newspapers and longer, more poetic passages of autobiography.
Generally it is the longer pieces that have retained their strength. Most of the Literature section is straight reprints of book reviews published in the 80s and 90s. Boyd’s a fine book reviewer, but never a spectacular writer. He’s observant and patient, but the average reader will perhaps need some verbal fireworks or cutting wit if she is to bother reading twenty-year-old book reviews. The possible exception is his longer review of Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, which is fascinating. Boyd needs room to draw the reader in. He’s unflashy and thorough, very English, and needs a little time with the subject before he’ll begin to really impress you.
The best sections of Bamboo are probably the autobiographical essays. Boyd had an interesting upbringing, firstly in West Africa and then in a Scottish Highland boarding school. His memories of both make for interesting reading, particular his disbelief and bitterness at how traumatic the experience of boarding school was. It’s hard not to feel sorry for young Boyd, transplanted from a life of freedom in sunny Ghana to the drizzle and repression of Scotland’s northern regions. He also writes well on Africa, and on art, though I again couldn’t help being frustrated by the brevity of his essays. Most only run to a few pages. The section on Film was good enough, but again insubstantial. Television was mostly reviews of obsolete British television shows; yes, they would have to be exceptionally well written to captivate still. People and Places is a real mixed bag. His subjects are all interesting, but once more the essays lack enough depth to give a sense of enlightenment. Boyd’s writing on Art is probably his best review work; he seems to allow himself to be a little blunter and more passionate in expressing his opinions. The artists in question are mostly 20th century Brits.
There’s nothing in Bamboo that’s even remotely badly written. There’s nothing long enough to outstay its welcome either. But whether or not you enjoy this book will probably depend on how much you share Boyd’s very British interests. He’s pleasant, knowledgeable company, but he won’t amaze you.