William Boyd has a thing for outsiders, be it the genteel Englishman adrift among rednecks in the American South in Stars and Bars, the young woman in self-imposed African exile in Brazzaville Beach or the Russian recruited as a British spy in the Costa Award-winner Restless. In his new novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, Boyd has crafted a persuasive story about a singular kind of outsider, a man forced by extraordinary circumstances that spiral out of control to go underground and live an anonymous existence in the middle of a bustling, indifferent 21st-century city.
Adam Kindred (the name speaks volumes) has returned to his native England after a stint at an Arizona university. Escaping the wreckage of a failed marriage, he has come home to interview for a position as a climatologist at Imperial College in London. After his job interview, Adam stops at an Italian restaurant in Chelsea, where he strikes up a casual conversation with another man. When that man—Philip Wang—leaves behind an important-looking file folder, Adam plays the good Samaritan and arranges to bring it to Wang’s apartment, but when he gets there, he finds Wang has been stabbed and is close to death. At Wang’s behest, Adam pulls out the knife, but the man dies anyway. Adam panics and flees the premises with the dead man’s file. Having signed his name in the registry at the front desk of the apartment building, he is now the primary—indeed, the only—suspect in Wang’s murder.
Unable to return to his own hotel for his belongings, Adam is forced to live rough on a sheltered patch of ground along the Thames. He becomes adept at survival, but things turn from bad to worse when he is mugged and what little money he has left is stolen. Mounting misfortune leads him to a series of encounters with other disenfranchised denizens of London, lands him for a time in a notorious housing project, The Shaft, and takes him to a evangelical ministry, the Church of John Christ. Slowly, through his own ingenuity, Adam begins to construct a new kind of life for himself, and a new identity far removed from his former professional prestige.
Despite his ability to survive, though, Adam is never far from danger, pursued by both the police and Jonjo Case, Wang’s hired killer who is eager to find Adam and silence him for good. Meanwhile, Adam, now called Primo, begins to do some research and discovers that Philip Wang was head of research and development for a pharmaceutical firm that is about to launch a revolutionary new asthma medication. The drug company, wishing to stifle whatever Wang knew, has issued a £100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Adam Kindred.
It all makes for a deftly constructed thriller, told from four points of view that ultimately converge—Adam’s and Jonjo’s, as well as those of the chairman of the drug company—and of a police officer who stumbles into the case. The cop, Rita Nashe, works for the Marine Support Unit of the London police, patrolling the river, which twists through the city on its way to the sea. The Thames becomes the vein through which the blood of Boyd’s narrative flows, a simultaneously poetic and perilous entity connecting the story’s disparate elements.
While the novel makes for undeniably compelling reading, it offers far more substance than the run-of-the-mill thriller. Not only does Boyd’s always elegant writing far outstrip that found in most best-selling potboilers, but Adam’s predicament, for all its nightmarish horrors and clever solutions, etches a deep impression in the reader’s mind. Boyd asks us to consider how any of us might survive if we were stripped of our identities and all the accoutrements of modern urban life. He raises uncomfortable questions, too, of the value of human life in a world where the pursuit of corporate profit supplants human dignity.
Ordinary Thunderstorms is that oh-so-rare hybrid of entertainment and literary novel, the kind of book Graham Greene might have written had he lived into our information age. Like Greene, William Boyd is an expert at conveying two fixtures of the human condition: the fluidity of morality and the invincibility of fate.
Review of Restless