Skios, by Michael Frayn

>> Monday, November 11, 2013

TITLE: Skios
AUTHOR: Michael Frayn

PAGES: 272
PUBLISHER: Faber and Faber

SETTING: Contemporary Greece
TYPE: Fiction

On the private Greek island of Skios, the high-paying guests of a world-renowned foundation prepare for the annual keynote address, to be given this year by Dr. Norman Wilfred, an eminent authority on the scientific organization of science. He turns out to be surprisingly youthful, handsome, and charming—quite unlike his reputation as dry and intimidating. Everyone is soon eating out of his hands. So, even sooner, is Nikki, the foundation's attractive and efficient organizer.

Meanwhile, in a remote villa at the other end of the island, Nikki's old friend Georgie has rashly agreed to spend a furtive horizontal weekend with a notorious schemer, who has characteristically failed to turn up. Trapped there with her instead is a pompous, balding individual called Dr. Norman Wilfred, who has lost his whereabouts, his luggage, his temper, and increasingly all sense of reality—indeed, everything he possesses other than the text of a well-traveled lecture on the scientific organization of science.

Farce is not my favourite kind of comedy. I tend to find it tiresome and annoying, but that's probably because it's ridiculously hard to do well; therefore, in most cases, it's badly done. Skios is high farce, but it is also beautifully done, and I loved it.

The setup is, almost by definition, ridiculous and improbable. Oliver Fox arrives at Skios for an assignation with a married woman. He sees a beautiful young woman holding a sign for Dr. Norman Wilfred and, on impulse, approaches her. She assumes he is, indeed, the eminent scientist Dr. Wilfred (although he looks a lot younger and better looking than in his photograph) and carts him off to the prestigious conference she's organising, where he's expected to deliver the final lecture.

When the real Dr. Wilfred walks out past customs, there's no one holding a sign with his name on it. There's a taxi driver waiting, though, and he takes Dr. Wilfred to a house that's already occupied by a madwoman who thinks he's some sort of rabid rapist. The woman is called Georgie, and she was expecting her lover, Oliver.

On the surface, this is pure entertainment, and it really is fun and hilarious. The farcical elements are choreographed like clockwork and the funny bits are hilarious. I'm sure just reading it would already be funny, but the delivery achieved by Martin Jarvis, the narrator of the audiobook I was listening to, made it even more so. The scenes with the taxi drivers, particularly, made me almost cry with laughter.

But there's a lot more to it. The satire is extremely well-observed and spot-on, not relying on meanness or easy targets. There's also a deceptive depth to the characters. Oliver, for instance, initially comes across as a charming rotter, simply out for a lark. But after a while, it becomes clear there's more going on inside his head, a touch of something darker than one might assume. And Dr. Wilfred, boring pompous Dr. Wilfred, discovers a side to himself he never knew was there.

Just fantastic.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: As I mention above, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Martin Jarvis, and it was fabulous.


Darlynne,  16 November 2013 at 18:23  

This sounds great. I've put the book on hold at my library, can't wait to get started. Thanks!

Rosario 17 November 2013 at 10:52  

Hope you enjoy it, Darlynne!

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