We might as well begin with the widowed Mrs. Toppler, proud founder of the Fred Toppler Foundation, a happy bastion of nice manners and nice money whose unselfconscious mission is to further “the civilizing values of European culture.”
Mrs. Toppler, formerly Bahama LaStarr, formerly Apricot del Rio, Vegas showgirl (“Nothing cheap. I had a beautiful body. I was happy to express myself with it”), has settled her little enclave on the picture-perfect Greek island of Skios, where plumbago and bougainvillea spill over the blinding white walls toward the dazzling blue sea below and the equally dazzling blue sky above; where the stone floors in the stone cottages are 3,000 years old and the drinking water – “famously pure” – flows sweetly from the foundation’s own spring; and where Athena, goddess of wisdom and civilization, presides over all, tutelary deity and guiding spirit …
Juxtapose Apricot with Athena and you just about capture the anarchic spirit of Michael Frayn’s latest (and just Man Booker Prize long-listed) novel, Skios, a chaotic romp that is funnier than, really, it has any right to be, based as it is on the hoary convention of mistaken (okay, stolen) identity, lost luggage and the apparently unplumbable gullibility of the human race.
Athena may be the foundation’s tutelary deity, but the person who really runs the joint is thirtysomething Nikki Hook, “discreetly tanned, discreetly blonde, discreetly effective, and discreetly nice” – and not so discreetly looking to nab the director’s job when it becomes available. She loves the foundation and is dedicated to it, though, as even she admits, “You wouldn’t believe how many crooks and lunatics a place like this attracts” – a throwaway line readers will be better able to appreciate by the end of the book. As personal assistant to Mrs. T., Nikki must invite, arrange for and welcome the annual guest lecturer, slated this year to be Dr. Norman Wilfred, “a serious expert in the management of science and a genuine celebrity.”
Oliver Fox, on the other hand, is “an amiable young idiot” whose dish-mop of blond hair and soft brown eyes (“shining as dates”) woo women the world over. Oliver is that species of delightful wastrel who can’t help charming even as he yearns not to, yearns to be better – no, not better, good; but how can he fight his fate? “Friends of friends – even complete strangers, sometimes – started laughing as soon as they were introduced, waiting for him to be Oliver Fox in front of them.”
Dr. Wilfred is a dignified scholar, a man of science in his fifties committed to promoting the “intellectual exchange of ideas” and Oliver is … well, not. Nevertheless, via the magic of misapprehension and the sheer ballsiness of a man who makes his way through life as a human chameleon, the two will have swapped identities faster than you can say “farce.” Imposter Oliver is wined and dined and fêted and fussed over – even, amazingly, listened to, while at a villa on the other side of the island the hapless Dr. Wilfred is met by young Georgie, the companion Oliver is supposed to join, who is less than thrilled with his grey-haired, swag-bellied, egg-headed substitute.
It’s wholly improbable and utterly satisfying, a mishmash of absurd entanglements and accreting preposterousness, all carried out with a Shakespearian attentiveness to the niceties of class: For the upper, we have scholarly Dr. Wilfred and his confrères; for the middle, we have Nikki, Oliver and the rest of the Toppler crew; and for the peanut gallery, which obviously includes myself since I laughed myself silly over them, are Stavros and Spiros, the dogged and, in their way, efficient local taxi drivers – along with the other Greek workers practically the only people in the book who are doing what they are supposed to be doing when and where they’re supposed to be doing it. (Take that, European Union!)
It is impossible to believe that Frayn, a prolific playwright and novelist who turns his hand to politics as easily as to farce, was unaware of the significance of his setting at this time. “We like to think the keynote here is civilization,” Nikki says. And so it may be, if you pause a moment to think what “civilization,” in Greece, at this particular, post-election, pro-austerity moment in the second decade of the 21st century, actually means. The ending is a bust: Ignore it. Skios is a delight.
Kathleen Byrne, a Toronto writer and editor, frequently reviews for Globe Books.