William Boyd's Solo reviewed

William Boyd's Solo reviewed

It's 1969 and James Bond wakes up in The Dorchester in London. It’s his 45th birthday. He pushes his bad dream to one side, washes away the memories of Normandy in 1944 under the shower, and heads down to breakfast. He flirts with a woman in the lift and then orders four eggs, scrambled, and half a dozen rashers of unsmoked back bacon, well done, on the side. He smokes his first cigarette of the day while waiting for his breakfast to arrive.

I read the first chapter of William Boyd’s take on Bond in the Grill at The Dorchester immediately after the press conference for Solo (Jonathan Cape). It was a surreal experience. Boyd was still doing interviews with different broadcasters, and every so often his voice caught my attention and caused me to look quickly up from the novel. But despite the carnival atmosphere around me, I was gripped by the story, turning the pages, transported back to 1969, and already half in love with Boyd’s Bond.

Boyd, too, has always been a little in love with Bond and grew up with the novels long before the films existed, he told us. He and his fellow schoolboys used to read aloud to each other from With Russia With Love after lights out. Boyd even gave Bond’s creator Ian Fleming a role in Any Human Heart, where Fleming recruits Logan Mountstuart into the Naval Intelligence Division in World War II. On being asked to write a Bond novel - he said 'Yes" almost immediately - Boyd re-read all the novels in chronological order, adding the details to his own imagination and experience to create a textured, mature hero who isn’t without flaws and does make mistakes.

Back to Solo, and with Bond's birthday celebrations over – he toasts himself with Tattinger Rosé – he returns to work, dispatched to a fictional West African country called Zanzarim on a mission to stop the war. He pretty much succeeds but experiences a betrayal that leads him to drastic action. Bond wants revenge, and decides to go solo to get it.

As I drew towards the end of the novel, I realised that the title refers not only to Bond’s rebellion at its midpoint, but also to his continuing path through life. Despite his craving for passion and his brushes with romance, Bond seems destined to be alone. "Falling in love with a beautiful woman wasn't recommended," he notes. It’s the price he pays for the job he does, and all he can really do is enjoy the consolations while he can.

The entire novel jump cuts between scenes of horror and consolation. When Bond's present is pleasant, when he’s surrounded by the luxury of The Dorchester, his mind takes him back to the Normandy beaches and the first time his life was in danger. When his present is terrifying, when he is in danger or witnessing yet one more crime against humanity, feeling the “weary heart-sink, that heaviness of loss” that is his lot, he reaches for a memory of tenderness and pleasure.

Boyd has completely pulled off an excellent and absorbing spy story, layered with gloriously sensual detail of everything that is possible to consume, while emphasing the thoughtful, reflective aspect of man who is a killing machine for his country.

I hadn't planned this but ended up reading the whole of the novel in The Dorchester, partly in The Grill and then partly in the bar - which is as sumptuously furnished as you might imagine, with vast mirrors reflecting endless bottles of swanky booze, and where there are specially created bitters to make a range of signature gin cocktails. It was a fitting venue from which to be transported all over the world and back again. I don't think any secret agents tried to catch my eye, but then I might not have noticed. I was too entranced by my book.