Michael Frayn’s first novel in 10 years is a rollicking read that had me laughing out loud on many occasions – prompting even my girlfriend to enquire about what I was reading. It is a mistaken identity farce set on a fictitious Greek Island where Dr. Norman Wilfred is due at the Fred Toppler Foundation to give his presentation on scientometrics (science of measuring and analysing science), and Oliver Fox a womanising chancier set for a weekend away with a new conquest, find their bags mixed up and their identities mistaken. What follows is a delight.
It plays on people assumptions and how they will often base them on very little information allowing themselves to believe someone is who they say they are if that person has enough charm to do so – even if that person subsequently says they are not who people think they are. It is also a search about finding an identity, and how we can all find ourselves stuck in the identity we have made for ourselves, and are not supposed to perform only in that identity. It also takes a huge swipe at the world of academia and those whose ‘job’ seems to be taking at conferences.
It may be because of my love of the Marx Brothers that this broad farce novel works so well for me. There is a skill in taking characters along for a ride of improbable (but not completely impossible) events. Mistaken identity blends with wild coincidence, character’s believable general nature to believe someone is who they say they are, and taxi driving twins to keep you smiling throughout. Frayn’s seemingly easy prose style also belies a more subtle literary skill. It is a much better read and funnier that Howard Jacobsen’s Booker winner (granted for me, this is not difficult for a book I wouldn’t have even shortlisted)
There is the question of whether characterisation is lost in the farce, and it could certainly be said a relaxing of the later to allow a bit more of the former could have made this a definite short-list book. I loved it anyway, and would have it on my shortlist for books of 2012.
That Frayn has said this is the last novel he plans to ever write is a sad fact, but it’s a good note to go out on.