The Truth by Michael Palin

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The Truth by Michael Palin

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A thought-provoking story about how we see the truth - or can it be what we make it? A book to buy as it will merit more than one reading.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: July 2012
Publisher: W&N
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0297860211

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Keith Mabbutt was at one of those points in life when everything seemed to be changing. His marriage was on the rocks. His relationship with his children was not good. He knew that he was a writer - he had a British Gas Award to prove it - but the investigative journalist which he once was had been replaced by someone who did corporate vanity projects. He skated over the unpalatable and accentuated what there was that was positive and he was paid passably well for doing it. When he was offered the chance to write a biography of Hamish Melville, the influential humanitarian activist, he seized the chance and not just because the money on offer was beyond his wildest dreams.

Determined to avoid the 'assistance' offered (indeed, almost forced upon him) by his publisher, Mabbutt set out to find the truth behind the legend and it took him to North East India. Meeting Melville is difficult and getting to know him is almost impossible, but with what little contact he was allowed he warmed to the man - the idealist who wanted to make a difference - rather than just the myth. But who is Melville and has Mabbutt really unearthed the truth about him?

I'm always slightly wary of books by writers who have been very successful is one genre and who then switch to another. So often they fail to live up to expectation. Michael Palin's travel books have been extraordinarily successful AND they've achieved critical acclaim, so The Truth sat on my desk for perhaps longer than it should - but it was seventeen years since Palin last wrote fiction. So, what's the truth about The Truth?

Well, it's a very good read. The story is well constructed with some neat twists which catch you unaware. It's thought provoking - particularly on the subject of land development in the third world and what happens to the people whose land is developed - but what I really didn't expect was the humour, which creeps up on you unexpectedly and makes you smile.

Mabbutt is a lovely creation. You probably know a dozen men in their fifties who are just like him. They've lost their fire - and their sense of direction. But Mabbutt does still have that spark of what he once was - and a basic honesty. He might be able to sidestep the comparisons between writing a history of Sullom Voe Oil Terminal (which fails to address the oil slicks which have caused damage) and his antagonism to an industrial plant in India but he has loyalty. Melville is a shadowy figure - by design - but he's never less than three dimensional. The female characters are perhaps less fully formed but that's a minor quibble.

I have to confess though that the star of the book for me was India, from her busy cities to the remote rural areas. I never for a moment felt that I was reading a travel book but there's a real skill in making a location feel real and vivid and Palin has it in spades. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy of the book to the Bookbag.

For another exposure of the inequalities in modern India we can recommend The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. We weren't very impressed by The Temple-Goers by Aatish Taseer, but it was listed for the Costa Prize in 2010 so it might be that it was just not the book for us.

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