alist instincts that served the ancient ancestors well. These theories are unlikely to sit well with anyone battling with the distress of mental illness but they do have excellent potential as material for a contemporary psychological thriller.
The problem is that Torday’s novel is neither psychologically resonant nor thrilling. Instead of committing to the dramatic demands of his subject, he dissipates most of its suspense from the outset by giving away Michael’s motivations: we are left only to discover the how, not the why, dismembering further the conventional storyline trajectory for a narrative dealing with historical material.
It is a rather disorienting experience for the reader, deliberately so, it seems.
To add further confusion to what is now a kind of narrative soup, Boyle confounds the reader further by adding into the mix a fictional narrator: the elegant, sardonic, delightful Tadashi Sato, a former student of Wright’s, whose voice and opinions are recorded in a series of of his illness. In addition, Torday seems unable to escape from the gently humorous mode of his wildly successful middle-age change-of-life debut novel, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which won the 2007 Wodehouse Prize for comedy. ( P. G.’ s surname, coincidentally, is probably a derivation of the mythic Woodwose.)
The Girl on the Landing , his third, spends most of its time in the territory of light romantic comedy. Elizabeth, who shares the narration with Michael, is a more whiny version of Bridget Jones, with a boss from hell and a mother who falls for a conniving dog-food salesman. She seems to remain astonishingly unconcerned by Michael’s medical history because he takes her on a Roman mini-break. The novel also devotes much of its length to chaffing the rule books, resolutions and golf tournaments of Grouchers.
It is little wonder, with narrative and psychological momentum flatlining, that Torday has to apply the defibrillators in the last pages of his novel, which takes a suddenly bloodthirsty turn. Torday even soups up the forgotten gothic trappings of its opening as the mysterious Lamia reveals herself — to anyone who has not recalled their Keats or googled her most unusual name — as another ancient figure, the childmurdering, half-female, half-serpent demon of Greek myth.
The Girl on the Landing retains many of the elements that worked well in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: alternating narrative viewpoints, the theme of escape from a stultifying marriage, and social satire. This novel also follows his first in being a kind of Shirley Valentine for men, freighting the reawakening of a middle-aged plodder with just enough hard science to convince the male reader he is not reading a romance, at least for its first three-quarters.
Yet one also feels that diverse elements ( salmon propagation, the can-do politics of the Blair government, mending relations between the Middle East and the West) came together organically in Torday’s debut novel. Here he seems to be trying to work from a formula.
In this case, despite his flirtation with the supernatural, the magic does not come. Delia Falconer is the editor of Best Australian Stories 2008 and The Penguin Book of the Road. footnotes Boyle has concocted to comment on the text and the action.
Complicating matters even further, the reader is then given to understand that it is Tadashi and his grandson-in-law Seamus O’Flaherty ( another fiction) who have written this entire narrative, one which they had in fact completed in 1979.
It is somewhere in the middle of all this narrative muddle, these 450 pages of literary game-playing and fiction-making nonsenses, that the reader gives up.
For in the midst of all the shenanigans the most important figure of all, the man himself, Frank Lloyd Wright — or Wrieto-San, as Tadashi respectfully calls him throughout the novel — begins to fade into the background.
He is there, of course, a figure that wafts through the book in that swirling black cape and that cocky black beret, arrogant, selfish and naive, but he is there not so much as a character but more as an authorial device, a catalyst rather than the very heart and soul of The Women.
The great architect, the revolutionary, the lover, the recalcitrant, the volcanic genius of legend and history emerges from the text a cliche; and a banal, self-centred, rather silly one at that.
Boyle’s Atlas might not have shrugged but, in the end, this reader did.
Angela Bennie is a Sydney journalist.