Book of the week : Skios - Michael Frayn

Can the hoary theme of mistaken identity still survive in today’s age of Google images? Especially if it’s a young, handsome womanizer with tousled blond hair being mistaken for the middle-aged, balding keynote speaker at the meticulously planned conference of a prestigious foundation?

Well, no. But since the author is Michael Frayn, a master farceur both onstage and on the page, it’s understandable to cut him some slack. So much of his new novel, Skios, is so expertly written and such genuine fun, it seems ill-mannered to quibble about the dubious premise

On the imaginary Greek isle of Skios, the Fred Toppler Foundation is gearing up for the arrival of Dr Norman Wilfred, the guest speaker at its annual lecture. Between swimming and siestas and pre-dinner drinks, the foundation’s self-improving millionaire guests are familiarising themselves with the glories of European culture amid flower-decked, fishermanless fisherman’s cottages and artfully constructed ancient ruins. Behind the scenes, Nikki Hook has matters in hand

Nikki is personal assistant (and aspiring foundation director) to Mrs. Fred Toppler, aging widow and former exotic dancer. Nikki’s career depends on the success of Dr. Norman Wilfred, her chosen speaker for the Fred Toppler Lecture, the highlight of the annual house party, an event that is about to begin as the novel commences. Meanwhile, Dr. Wilfred, a paunchy 50-something Englishman and the world’s greatest expert on the scientific organization of science (an ersatz field with which Frayn has much satiric fun), is on a flight bound for Skios, inwardly lamenting that although an eminent authority, he is a victim of “debilitating comfort and flattery.” As a result, he has had trouble getting laid. On the same flight is Oliver Fox, 30-something handsome rascal, with a “dishmop” of blond hair and big, seductive brown eyes, authority on nothing, with troubles because of how often and easily he gets laid

And wouldn’t you know it, upon their arrival at the Skios airport, there is a comedy of errors: identical bags switched, misunderstood statements resulting in mistaken identities, characters racing on or off stage so as to encounter or just miss other characters. The glib playboy is taken for the eminent authority, while the eminent authority is whisked way to the playboy’s love nest. Nikki falls for the supposed eminent authority, but then realizes her mistake and attempts to … In short, farce ensues

All this confusion could have been nipped in the bud by some quick phone calls or a simple Google search, but that would spoil the fun. We are rollicking along at a rapid clip and nothing straightforward will be allowed to spoil the fun. So it’s on with the pratfalls and near misses, the pantomime locals, the improbabilities and confusions

Along the way, Frayn tosses off all manner of entertaining commentary. The foundation’s beleaguered chef, who must accommodate the requests of the big shots attending the conference — gluten-free, salt-free, diabetic halal — glumly observes: “When I was a kid in Piraeus, was only two sorts of food. Was food, and was no food”

Having lined up his cast and set them on a collision course, Frayn takes us aside and reminds us that this is a farce, that his storylines were designed to lead us to a grand denouement in which the complexities will all be resolved. He then pulls a ”completely unconnected and irrelevant event” out of his hat, sets off the fireworks and drops the curtain. Gotcha!

Skios is another reminder that Frayn is a great comic choreographer. As in his previous novel, Headlong, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999, he is masterful at putting the pieces in place and then moving them around in a beautiful but orderly swirl. In Skios, the chapters are rarely more than five pages long, involve just one or two characters and move the action frantically forward while keeping the chaos under control. Frantic yet controlled: few comic writers know how to strike that narrative balance. There is never a moment when the reader is given the chance to be bored, as Frayn darts from Nikki to Oliver to Dr. Wilfred and back again

Most enjoyable and a perfect summer read

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