Let us start with the river - all things begin with the river and we shall probably end there, no doubt - but let's wait and see how we go.
So begins William Boyd's most recent novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms. It began with the river in more ways than one according to the author:
The idea for the novel started when I read that every year in London they take 60 bodies a year out of the Thames, usually at the bend in the river near Greenwich. That's more than one a week, but you never hear about them. And then I thought immediately about the opening scenes of Dickens's Our Mutual Friend and the body being pulled out of the river. And I figured out that there was a way of writing a novel in the way that Our Mutual Friend does, from the very top of society to the very bottom. It all began to come together.
I found the book curiously underpowered and often sloppily written, from the very first sentence: '...we shall probably end there, no doubt'. Well, what's it to be?
I went back to Our Mutual Friend, which contains passages like this one:
The squall had come up, like a spiteful messenger before the morning; there followed in its wake a ragged tear of light which ripped the dark clouds until they showed a great grey hole of day.
The were all shivering, and everything about them seemed to be shivering; the river itself, craft, rigging, sails, such early smoke as there yet was on the shore. Black with wet, and altered to the eye by white patches of hail and sleet, the huddled buildings looked lower than usual, as if they were cowering, and had shrunk with the cold. Very little life was to be seen on either bank, windows and doors were shut, and the staring black and white letters upon wharves and warehouses "looked." said Eugene to Mortimer, "like inscriptions over the graves of dead businesses."
This was Dickens' last completed novel and passages like the one above strike me as very modern. It appears to sit just a little upstream of another description, perhaps the most famous of the estuarial Thames, from Conrad's Heart of Darkness:
The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.
Perhaps it's unfair on Boyd to measure him against these two masters but there's really nothing in his book to compare - almost literally. It's a thriller so we shouldn't expect too many literary extravagances but nevertheless the language is so flat and indistinct it fails to draw us in. Here's the main description of the river from the first couple of pages:
Adam walked over to the high stone balustrade that curved the roadway into Chelsea Bridge and, leaning on it, looked down at the Thames. The tide was high and still coming in, he saw, the normal flow of water reversed, flotsam moving surprisingly quickly upstream, heading inland, as if the sea were dumping its rubbish in the river rather than the usual, other way round... [H]e didn't feel as if he were in the middle of a huge city at all: the trees, the quiet force of the surging, tidal river beneath his feet, that special luminescence that a body of water throws off, made him grow calmer - he'd been right to come to the river - odd how these instincts mysteriously drive you, he thought.
Not bad but hardly captivating. It's imprecise, it lacks particularity: 'high' (repeated), 'normal', 'surprisingly', 'usual', 'a body', 'special', 'mysteriously'. It tips its hat to the river's mystical influences but can't be bothered to do any more. You feel neither the reality of the river nor its resonances and, as a consequence, the character and his context are deprived of depth and meaning.
But how about a more contemporary comparison? This is from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall:
He steps into his barge for the first time, and on the river, Rafe tells his news. The rocking of the boat beneath them is imperceptible. The flags are limp; it is a still morning, misty and dappled, and where the light touches flesh or linen or fresh leaves, there is a sheen like the sheen on an eggshell: the whole world luminous, its angles softened, its scent watery and green. He stares down into the water, now brown, now clear as the light catches it, but always moving; the fish in its depths, the weeds, the drowned men with bony hands swimming. On the mud and shingle there are cast up belt buckles, fragments of glass, small warped coins with the kings' faces washed away. Once when he was a boy he found a horseshoe. A horse in the river? It seemed to him a very lucky find. But his father said, if horseshoes were lucky, boy, I would be the King of Cockaigne.
Pointing out the differences seems superfluous (the river is treated brilliantly throughout her novel).
Ordinary Thunderstorms isn't a bad book; it's readable and diverting. But one gets the sense of an opportunity missed. As the doorman of a riverside tavern remarks in Our Mutual Friend, "There's ever so many people in the river." But you will look in vain for them in Ordinary Thunderstorms: the river remains firmly confined by its own pages. When Boyd begins, 'Let us start with the river...,' he's stepping into a tradition in which he barely even dabbles.