Book review: A Dead Hand

A DEAD HANDBY PAUL THEROUXHamish Hamilton, 263pp, £18.99Review by ALLAN MASSIE

PAUL Theroux has written some 30 novels or collections of short stories, and has won several prizes, including the Whitbread. Yet he is probably better known as a travel writer, and this may be because his novels rarely have the personal voice which sounds in his travel-writing. Instead some even of the best among them seem to echo other writers – Graham Greene in The Family Arsenal and Saul Bellow in The Mosquito Coast, for instance. Once an admirer of VS Naipaul, whom he took as his mentor, he lost the respect of some readers with his disillusioned and bitter account of their friendship, Sir Vidia's Shadow.

A Dead Hand has the subtitle "A Crime in Calcutta", and indeed Calcutta, or rather his narrator's response to the city, is perhaps the most convincing character in the novel, described with feeling, fascination and no little repulsion. Unfortunately, the crime itself is not very interesting, barely holds one's attention, fails to arouse curiosity, and may indeed be regarded as a mere peg on which to hang the narrative.

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The story is told by Jerry Delfont, himself a travel writer but, when the novel begins, one who has nothing left he wants to write about. He is bored and disappointed, and feels that his considerable reputation is undeserved and burdensome. He receives a letter from a certain Mrs Unger in which she asks for his help to unravel a mystery. She makes bold to do so, she explains, because she admires his writing. He accepts the invitation.

Mrs Unger is a rich, sari-wearing American who is both a businesswoman and a philanthropist. She is a woman of strong views, disliking the English and especially the Royal Family. She is severely critical of Mother Teresa, too: she was, she says, obsessed by death whereas she is on the side of life. She shuns publicity (for reasons which the reader may suspect long before the narrator) and busies herself rescuing children. Her attitude to India is ambivalent. She is fascinated by the country but seems contemptuous of Indians. Jerry finds her very attractive.

The crime itself concerns her son Charlie's Indian friend Rajat – his boyfriend, we assume, though this is never spelled out. Staying, for reasons at first undisclosed, in a cheap and sordid hotel, he woke in the middle of the night to find the body of a young boy on the floor of his bedroom, and fled in a panic. Will Jerry please investigate?

He does so, at first in perfunctory fashion. He is far more interested in Mrs Unger, who gives him Tantric massage and with whom he falls rapidly in love, undeterred by her habit of frequenting a temple devoted to Kali, goddess of destruction, and buying small black goats to be sacrificed. She takes him on trips to rescue children and in his infatuation he is blind to aspects of her behaviour that any alert reader will find disturbing, even sinister.

The narrative itself moves, alas, only with glacial speed, with too much description and too much about Jerry's inability to find anything he wants to write about. In one scene Theroux introduces a character called Paul Theroux who questions Jerry about Mrs Unger – seeking information which he does not choose to divulge. The only apparent reason for calling this character Paul Theroux is to dissuade readers from identifying Theroux himself with his narrator. This is scarcely necessary and the scene with the Theroux character adds little to the novel.

It is always risky – unless you are writing a comedy – to make your narrator quite as uninteresting and slow on the uptake as Jerry proves to be. Much of the time he seems to drift around in a mist of boredom and longing, with the reader always a few steps ahead of him. The minor characters – a beautiful poet called Parvati, frustrated by the demands of her family, and an official from the American consulate – have a little more vitality than poor Jerry, but are never really convincing. The novel could work only if Mrs Unger exerted the same fascination on the reader as she does on Jerry, but she remains flat on the page, an idea never translated into life. The long scenes in which she and Jerry engage in reciprocal massage must surely be candidates for the Literary Review's Bad Sex prize. Even the crime which might have given some urgency to the novel fails in this respect, though at least Jerry's investigation gives rise to a couple of the book's more lively scenes.

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Once again the personal is absent. It is curious that Theroux's voice, which sounds so clearly in his travel writing, should not be heard in his novels which might, one thinks, be by anyone.