The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki

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The Flying Man by Roopa Farooki

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: The story of the ultimate immigrant - a man who changes identity with each country he moves to always in search of the next gamble. It takes a while to get going, but is a moving and sometimes funny account of a man searching for meaning in his life.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Headline Review
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780755383382

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Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012

The Flying Man opens with the now elderly Maqil Karam writing a letter in his budget hotel in the South of France and facing death. His story takes in many locations, from his native Punjab, to New York, Cairo, London, Paris and Hong Kong. In each location, Maqil adopts a different name, including Mike Cram, Mehmet Kahn, Miguel Caram and Mikhail Lee. Often he acquires a different wife as well, Carine, Samira and Bernadette, although he doesn't go to the bother of divorcing them, he just simply walks away. He is a chancer and a gambler, avoiding attachment, responsibility and commitment throughout his life.

Ultimately, The Flying Man is an often wryly amusing and moving assessment of a realisation that a life has been wasted. However, it takes a long time to take off. I found the first third of the book frustratingly resistant to enjoy. Partly this is because the early events in his life are dealt with in a fairly brief fashion and we jump to the next stage of his identity without ever really getting to know him or the situation. Partly too, though, although we are told that he is charming which enables him to get away with people forgiving his actions, this never really comes across. For the first hundred or so pages he comes over merely as unforgivably self-centred. There are few literary figures I enjoy more than a damaged rogue, but I never connected with Maqil (or whichever character he is at that moment) in that way.

This changes when he arrives in London with his second wife, Samira, who is the love of his life. We both get more detail and time with him at this point in his life and he manages to stay in one place long enough to father twins with Samira. It is Samira and the twins' reaction to him that becomes most interesting and convincing. Of course, fatherhood doesn't convince him to hang around for long, but it does have a lasting effect on him, although perhaps not as much as his actions have on his children.

The publisher's blurb might lead you to think that we are in for tales of brilliant cons and grifting in the manner of, say, TV's Hustle. However, these are kept largely as mysterious to the reader as they are to those in Maqil's life. Indeed, for much of the book, Maqil flits along in the way that he does with life in general until he is faced with his own mortality and begins to assess his actions more deeply. This comes to him rather late on as three heart attacks are not enough to encourage him to take stock earlier on in the narrative.

The book is very well crafted and beautifully written, with moments that will move the reader as well as raise a smile. Again it is the children and Samira who are the real stars in both respects. Whether you end up loving this book probably depends on the extent to which you are initially charmed by Maqil. Unfortunately for me, I was more in camp Samira and the twins to sympathise more with his plight and compulsion to gamble and move on. This left me admiring the story-telling and style of the book without being completely wrapped up in the story.

There is no doubt however that there are some superb passages to the book. It's a book that I wished was either longer or shorter - either to give more depth to the early life and adventures or to gloss over them more quickly. The London years are by far the strongest, perhaps because this was closest to Maqil's true self, but perhaps also because Samira and the twins are such wonderful characters that I couldn't imagine leaving them. Then again Maqil is a compulsive gambler in life. Roopa Farooki explains that the story is partly inspired by her own father and so perhaps this explains why the abandoned children are so movingly dealt with.

Our thanks to the kind people at Headline Review for sending this Orange Prize-nominated book to us.

There are some excellent books on the Orange long list which are well worth checking out, albeit that this year's offerings seem somewhat historical in slant. For more grifting high jinx though, we'd also recommend How to Forget by Marius Brill. We were also impressed by Corner Shop by Roopa Farooki.

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