I have now established that I have 8 months to wait before I can read the final part of Peter May’s The Lewis Trilogy. That’s a long, long time when I actually feel bereft. I am in need of distraction. For this reason I’m starting a new reading project. If I was a rich (wo)man (da,da,da,da,da,da,da; da,da,da,da,da, da, daaaaaaaa) I would travel round the world. So using the Isle of Lewis as my starting point, I’m going to island hop round the globe and through my TBR, making my way back to the Outer Hebrides for next January. No idea how many stops or virtual airmiles this trip will entail but it will be whimisical, jumping from north to south, east to west, and back again. Maybe, just maybe, real life will dovetail with the fictional trip at some stage.
Anyway let’s board the jet that awaits us on the front cover of Michael Frayn’s latest and head in a south-easterly direction to the Greek island of Skios, where it is hot, sunny and exceedingly comical.
Frayn is a master at farce. I loved Booker-shortlisted Headlong, howled and wept with laughter at his play Noises Off! and was delighted to curl up with and giggle my way through Skios. Yes, giggle. From beginning to end. I’m having problems writing this review though. Have you ever tried to tell the tale of why something is so funny only to resort to the line “you had to be there”? Well, I’m tempted to say simply “you have to read this”.
It’s a classic comic setup revolving around a case of mistaken identity. Dr Norman Wilfred, self-important, middle-aged and chubby, travels to Skios to deliver the annual lecture to the rich and privileged at the Fred Toppler Foundation. Oliver Fox, a man in his prime with a mop of blond hair, arrives on the same plane. But the woman he is expecting to meet him isn’t there. So he attaches himself to the woman who is waiting for Dr Wilfred and lets her think he is who he is not. Oliver Fox is an adventurer, and this trip is about to turn into a real adventure for both him and the man whose identity he adopts.
Oliver Fox is happy to go along for the ride and that’s the best way to approach reading this novel. Following a slow build-up, the rollercoaster ride begins. Dr Wilfred finds himself in the villa where Oliver Fox was meant to be staying – with Oliver Fox’s girlfriend(s). Oliver Fox finds himself feted at the Foundation where his natural wit stands him in good stead with an audience only too willing to be duped. (Well there’s one nay-sayer, but he’s just a pompous bore!) Two taxi-drivers find themselves in demand as never before ferrying people between airport, foundation, villa, foundation, airport … up and down the hills they go. Is the repeated opening and closing of those taxi doors the novelistic equivalent of the all important timed exits and entrances in a typical farce?
Mistaken identity occurs on many levels: Oliver Fox and Dr Norman Wilfred; the two taxi-drivers, Stavros and Spiros; and the black suitcases with red luggage labels (lovely touch that). There are nefarious and shady goings-on at the foundation, where all is not what it seems. I found the ongoing leitmotif of an increasingly hapless and indignant Dr Wilfred and his lecture notes hilarious.
And all at once he was hit by a bolt of black lightening. Every single thing had gone wrong since he had landed on this horrible island. He was Dr Norman Wilfred, for God’s sake. Not a helpless victim of forces beyond his control, but a rational human being in a rational world! He was used to something better than this! And he had been mocked and humiliated! Led around like a bear on a rope by idiocy and incompetence, by chance and misunderstanding, by coincidence and two moles on a shoulder blade!
Ah yes, those moles. It wouldn’t be farce without the naughty bits. Plus there is real anticipation in wondering how Oliver Fox will blag his way through the delivery of that all-important lecture on Innovation and Governance – the promise of Scientometrics. What? Exactly. Will this be the moment of his comeuppance?
You have to read it for yourself to find out. (See, I said it after all.)