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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



William Boyd

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To purchase Armadillo

Title: Armadillo
Author: William Boyd
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 337 pages
Availability: Armadillo - US
Armadillo - UK
Armadillo - Canada
Armadillo - India
Armadillo - France
Armadillo - Deutschland
  • Nominated for 2000 International IMPAC Dublin Award
  • Armadillo was made into a TV-film, starring James Frain, James Fox, Hugh Bonneville, Stephen Rea, and Catherine McCormack

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Our Assessment:

A- : a fine, thoughtful, fun novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph B 21/2/1998 Caroline Moore
The Economist D 14/3/1998 .
Literary Review A 2/1998 Andrew Biswell
London Rev. of Books . 4/6/1998 Alex Ivanovitch
New Statesman B- 6/3/1998 Jason Cowley
The NY Times B 3/11/1998 Richard Bernstein
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 22/11/1998 A.O.Scott
The Observer . 1/9/2001 Caroline Boucher
Salon C 13/10/1998 Charles Taylor
San Francisco Chronicle B+ 21/2/1999 Gina Arnold
The Spectator A- 21/2/1998 David Profumo
The Sunday Times B 15/2/1998 Peter Kemp
Time B 30/3/1998 Elizabeth Gleick
The Times A- 19/2/1998 Russell Celyn Jones
TLS . 20/2/1998 Sean O'Brien
USA Today B+ 22/1/1999 Michael Jacobs
The Washington Post A 20/10/1998 David Nicholson

  Review Consensus:

  No critical consensus: some loved the writing, some thought it was terrible. The same with the meandering story. Only consensus: Boyd was not being ambitious enough, not using his talents to the fullest.

  From the Reviews:
  • "What is wrong? Well, chiefly, the plotting, the characters and the writing." - The Economist

  • "What the book adds up to is an outstanding comic novel, very much in the tradition of Kingsley Amis's early writing and Anthony Burgess's Inside Mr Enderby. But Armadillo is not a complete departure from Boyd's recent novels." - Andrew Biswell, Literary Review

  • "(Boyd) is the supreme chronicler of contemporary contingency, of randomness and uncertainty." - Jason Cowley, New Statesman

  • "Armadillo is full of loose ends, unsolved mysteries and red herrings. But it is also charming, unsettling and sneakily, serendipitously profound." - A.O.Scott, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Armadillo is gripping from the first page -- where Lorimer enters an office expecting to negotiate the conclusion of an insurance claim but is confronted by a hanged man -- to the final departure at the airport. Loss adjusting in this context is never dull." - Caroline Boucher, The Observer

  • "Lorimer is the sort of self-absorbed materialistic protagonist you'd expect in a novel about acquisitive '80s yuppies. Like everything else about Armadillo, his purchased sophistication feels half-right and terribly, terribly vague." - Charles Taylor, Salon

  • "Armadillo has some plot problems (.....) And structurally, the novel fizzles out at the end. But even so, Boyd glues the reader to the page with his prose, particularly his facility with historical context and location. His depiction of life in modern London is intense and accurate." - Gina Arnold, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(A) comic thriller as entertaining as anything he has written." - David Profumo, The Spectator

  • "(W)hen you take care of your characters as well as this (...), the story takes care of itself." - Russell Celyn Jones, The Times

  • "It would spoil this extremely enjoyable novel to reveal more of the plot, but it should be recorded that Boyd creates such high expectations that the falling away of the book at the close is a sharp disappointment. It is no novelty that he should successfully juxtapose such varied materials, so many worlds brushing against each other (...) but Armadillo seems to contain a bigger, more ambitious and richly metaphorical work than he has allowed to emerge." - Sean O'Brien, Times Literary Supplement

  • "This novel is everything good fiction should be." - David Nicholson, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       William Boyd's unusual novel is his first set in England. His hero is Lorimer Black, a successful loss insurance adjuster, who tries to carefully control his life but finds himself buffeted about by stronger forces. The book opens with Lorimer finding a hanged man, and while the experience is upsetting Lorimer does not immediately realize the ramifications and consequences that will turn his life upside down.
       Armadillo is only vaguely a thriller. There are odd insurance conspiracies, security frauds, and assorted acts of violence that affect Black, but Boyd only vaguely lets him get to the bottom of them. The book is meant to be vague, and that is a great part of its charm (though numerous critics were obviously bothered by this).
       Nothing is quite as it seems in Armadillo. The names are highly unusual -- Torquil Helvoir-Jayne and Flavia Malinervo, to name only two -- and unpronounceable or incomprehensible throughout. The 'e' in Home is pronounced, the 't' at the end of Rappaport is silent, and so on. In addition, many of the characters have changed their names -- including Black, who is actually Milomre Blocj, youngest son of a large family that emigrated from Eastern Europe.
       Block wants to blend in to English society, and he manages well, having gone to university in the farthest reaches of Scotland to get as far away as possible from his true identity and returning a changed man. While still close to his family, and helping to support them, he looks for his identity elsewhere. He steels himself against the outer world, building his little shell -- and collecting antique helmets, added protective armor.
       Lorimer is not even directly in the insurance (or assurance) business, making people whole again. He is a loss adjuster, advising the actual insurers whether a claim is suspicious, and if so what a reasonable settlement fee would be. He excels at his job, recognizing when people have something to hide, knowing when they are lying. When the largest claim he has come across is too easily resolved -- a 27 million pound claim reduced at a stroke to 10 million -- his professional life begins to unravel.
       Lorimer's personal life is no less confused. He has trouble sleeping and spends nights at the Institute of Lucid Dreams, his sleep patterns studied and analyzed. Obsessed by an actress -- said Flavia -- he tracks her down and tries to win her over. He writes The Book of Transfiguration, a useful companion piece to the novel proper, giving us information about his background, and his thoughts and preoccupations.
       The plot is meandering and never entirely clear. Lorimer tries to stay in control of matters, but they elude him. There is a bigger picture here, but he only glimpses pieces of it, and he can never put it together entirely satisfactorily. The evolution of the novel is, however, in typical Boydian fashion thoughtfully comical, with a few scenes that are hilarious. Lorimer is not a hapless hero, but he cannot fully comprehend or contend with the forces around him, and Boyd plays this out beautifully.

       Armadillo is a very fine novel. It is not a simple or simplistic thriller, indeed it is a vague mystery, but Boyd captures this vagueness, this incomprehensibility of life exceptionally well. There are few easy answers in Armadillo (as in life), but what Boyd offers is immensely satisfying. Seeking out an identity and a place in life, Lorimer is a realistic and comforting modern hero.
       A number of readers and critics are apparently immensely bothered by Boyd's piecemeal offering and vague story. We found those aspects of the novel very satisfying (and we normally do not), but prospective readers should be forewarned. We also found Boyd, as almost always, to write immensely entertainingly and well. He manages here, as he does at his best, to be both funny and poignant.
       A few things are overdone -- so the name-play, and the helmets -- but otherwise this is an immensely satisfactory read, one we found far superior to, for example, Ian McEwan's Booker-prize winning Amsterdam. We recommend this book very highly. One of the best English books of 1998.

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Armadillo: Reviews: Armadillo - the TV film:
  • IMDb page
  • Review by John Simon in New York (scroll down for review)
William Boyd: Other books by William Boyd under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, which (inexplicably) beat out Armadillo for the 1998 Booker Prize
  • See the index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author William Boyd was born in Ghana in 1952. Educated at the universities of Nice, Glasgow, and Oxford, he was also a lecturer at Oxford. Author of numerous novels he has won practically every major British literary award, save the Booker (for which he has been short-listed).

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