3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta (Paperback)
An interesting and highly enjoyable book, the first Theroux I have read. The back cover states "The most gifted, the most prodigal writer of his generation". On the evidence of this narrative, I can't help feeling that this praise is slightly hyperbolic.
What you think you might be getting, after the opening pages and with reference to the title, is a crime or mystery story. You aren't, really. What you are getting more of is the depiction of a love affair between a needy writer and an all-powerful goddess-like woman. The book is excellent in this portrayal, examining the nature of the balance of power in a nascent love affair. Mrs Unger, the novel's central figure is a fascinating creation and Theroux does a good job of highlighting the narrator's naivety in entrusting his soul to her.
It's a complex juggling act, as there is much about the narrator that can be identified with Theroux, both well-known travel writers. In order to distance himself still further from the narrator, Theroux introduces himself as a character - and a seemingly unpleasant one at that. The effect is of a cracked mirror; indeed this novel is full of reflective strategies that make it impossible for the reader to know where the truth lies in this very self-referential contrivance.
But it isn't a five-star novel. For a start, it is a little thin on plot and the book tends to meander along with only the fascination of its central character to hold it up. The unease that the reader first feels on meeting Mrs Unger for the first time is later vindicated but even this is skilful. As the narrator becomes increasingly besotted, so the reader gradually shares his infatuation. The descriptions and atmosphere of India are also vibrant and fascinating, truly bringing places alive.
I suspect I will read more of Theroux's work. The one thing that might hold me back is that writers who tend to focus on writing might well have run out of things to say. At the end of the novel, it is hard to know what is the point that Theroux wants to make. Mrs Unger remains ambiguous, as does India. Perhaps that is all he wanted to convey.