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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, March 11th, 2003


Any Human Heart


A review by Brooke Allen

Like Boyd's The New Confessions (1988), a fictional autobiography, his new novel takes one man on a voyage through the twentieth century. In this case the voyager is an Englishman named Logan Mountstuart (b. 1906, Uruguay; d. 1991, France), who tells the story of his peripatetic, eventful, and not always dignified life through a series of journal entries. Mountstuart tends to be where the action is, sometimes unwillingly. He is a schoolboy in England during World War I and a student at Oxford during the postwar period. He is a hot young novelist in Paris during the glory years of the 1920s. He covers the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, is involved in naval intelligence in World War II, becomes an art dealer in booming New York during the 1950s, witnesses the war in Biafra, and, as a well-meaning valetudinarian, gets himself into a ludicrous pickle with the Baader-Meinhof gang. He marries three times, once happily. On his erratic way he runs into a motley group of celebrities that includes Picasso, Ian Fleming, Ernest Hemingway, Larry Rivers, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who play a sinister role in Mountstuart's life.

But the novel is very much more than a travelogue through the past century. It is a reflection on the shape of individual lives: the themes, the repetitions, the true and false friendships; the way we are inevitably diverted from the straight courses we wish to pursue; the near impossibility of imposing meaning onto our experiences. Boyd has named his book Any Human Heart, but Mountstuart is not exactly Everyman: he is far more generous, forgiving, and free than most of us. He is also more amusing, and more amused by life; he makes an extremely attractive central character. Boyd is one of the most skillful and appealing writers at work today, endowed with both a great natural vitality and an increasingly sophisticated humanism.

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