ED: A GUEST REVIEW! THIS TIME, FRIEND OF GBR ANDREW "BENNY" BENTHAM TAKES AIM AT SKIOS. ENOY, SUCKERS.
Skios by Michael Frayn (Faber & Faber: 2012). Over the course of this zippy, very funny novel, Dr Wilfred - a pre-eminent lecturer, expert on scientometrics, heading to give a lecture to the Fred Toppler Foundation on Skios – finds himself in a hole as deep as the Greek deficit. His troubles start when the aptly named Oliver Fox – a sneaky charmer who arrives at Skios airport on the same day – pinches his suitcase. Fox meets the foundation’s highly attractive organiser and sees an opportunity to assume Dr Wilfred’s identity and have a little adventure… Dr Wilfred and Oliver Fox are then thrown in to some very funny fish-out-of-water scenarios, which become more embarrassing and more hilarious as the novel progresses.
Once you’ve stopped chuckling at Michael Frayns’s hilarious comedy of mistaken identities, the overwhelming feeling you have is: poor Dr Wilfred.
I really liked this book. It gave me that warm fuzzy, comforting feeling I get from watching Fawlty Towers or A Fish Called Wanda. It’s so English, so clever and so class aware, it was like reading something from the 1970’s or early 80’s. It’s an old fashioned story, where the comedy is intelligent, the characters are well-drawn and even the scoundrels are uproariously funny – and delightfully posh. There’s something incredibly comforting about reading a book with absolutely no peril. But for the same reason, there is also very little to keep it in your thoughts once you’ve finished it.
The antagonist here is Oliver Fox, though calling him that suggests his character has some sort of plan, which he emphatically does not. He’s like a puppy, making decisions on a whim and convincing himself he can wing it with a winning smile and some flirty repartee. And while his character is very funny, it is the story of Dr Wilfred, who is forced to experience life as Oliver Fox that really had me guffawing. The poor doctor is permanently baffled, unable to comprehend how his life has unravelled so rapidly. It is his decline that holds the comedy gold- and the heart.
The writing is succinct, it’s tightly plotted and Frayn really knows how to convey an awful lot with just a few words. His ear for comedy is brilliant - I'm sure he’d be a great dinner party guest.
But as the climax approaches, the narrative begins to unravel a bit. Up to this point, it feels like a play (possibly the original concept, given Frayn’s expertise) but then it turns in to something akin to a Hollywood blockbuster, which didn’t sit well with the previous 200 odd pages.
But I can forgive it. Because you can’t hold a grudge against a book that makes you laugh this much and keeps a smile on your face for nearly its entire length.
I’ve seen some reviews that say Frayn is ‘contemplating identity,’ with this novel, but frankly, I don’t buy it. I think he wrote this to get laughs – and he succeeds.
ED: NICE ONE BENNY. NICE ONE VERY MUCH. NEXT WEEK, I'VE GIVEN IN AND READ ANOTHER GLEN DUNCAN.