Book of the week: The Fencer by Rodrigo Ayala


Fencing is a pretty niche sport, and fiction with a fencing background is nicher still; The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte and The Duel by Joseph Conrad come to mind, and there are plenty of novels in which swordplay features, but this is the first I’ve read based on the world of competitive fencing.

The author, Rodrigo Ayala, is apparently a former fencing international, though an internet search for his record drew a blank. But he seems to know his stuff, as he describes a series of bouts in which his hero Francis advances to the final of the épée world championship. It all sounds jolly exciting, and is certainly conveyed with immediacy, but for those of us who don’t know their battement from their sixte, Ayala’s resolute use of the classic French terms can make the action hard to follow.

Running parallel to his exploits on the piste is Francis’s tangled love life. Rich, handsome and dashing, he attracts admirers in droves, but he has been emotionally stunted by his fencing father from hell, who is determined that either Francis or his brother, Germain, will win the world title, and makes Francis give up his original ambition, to train as a concert pianist.

Francis becomes a rat with women, wooing, conquering and then dumping them in various picturesque European capitals without a backward glance. Until, that is, he meets Agnès, not as conventionally beautiful as his usual conquests, but with a certain je ne sais quoi (not a fencing term). Their courtship progresses in tandem with his progress in the world championships. He reaches the final, where he has to face… his brother.

Who’d have thought it? Will he win through? Will he get the girl? It would be unfair to spoil the ending for those who have persevered to page 199. How many will do so is another question entirely.

Published in hardback, £13, and paperback, £9, by Matador