A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta by Paul Theroux
|A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta by Paul Theroux|
|Genre: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Robin Leggett|
|Summary: Although there is a murder-mystery at the heart of this story, it mostly takes a back seat to an exploration of obsession and need on behalf of a burned out travel writer suffering from writer's block who encounters a Tantric temptress with dark secrets. Theroux treads familiar Indian territory exposing dark realities of India.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 272||Date: November 2009|
|Publisher: Hamish Hamilton|
Set in India, familiar territory for Theroux, A Dead Hand tells the story of a travel writer suffering from writer's block (also known as 'dead hand') until a chance letter from an American ex-pat, the mysterious Mrs Unger, relating a story of a mystery of a dead body in a hotel leads him to release his creativity in very unexpected ways. The story is more about obsession and infatuation than it is about the mystery itself as the narrator falls under Mrs Unger's Tantric charms. But does she have more to hide than she's letting on?
I confess to being quite a fan of Paul Theroux, both of his fiction and his travel writing. So with a new novel set in the India that he knows so well, what could possibly go wrong? Disappointingly, quite a bit on the evidence of this book, I'm afraid.
For a start, both the narrator and the object of his infatuation, Mrs Unger, are far from likeable characters. The writer (Jerry Delfont, although he is hardly, if at all, referred to by his name in the book) comes over as a self-pitying man (and it's always hard to get into a book where the narrator has few redeeming qualities) and he largely fails to convey any of the charms that make the Mrs Unger so appealing to him. Also inexplicably for someone who knows India so well, Theroux fails to invoke much of the mystery of the place.
A further problem I had with the book was that in relating the Tantric activities of Mrs Unger there is clearly a lot of sexual metaphor (the sessions take place in Mrs Unger's 'vault') - which is fine although it is repetitious (as is much the first two thirds of the book), but he then goes on to make it explicit - 'And being inside the vault was like being inside her body'. It seems that he is giving his readers no credit for picking up on his non-too subtle hints and I felt that I was being a bit patronised.
The subject of writing is clearly something Theroux knows very well, although given his prolific nature one suspects the pains of writer's block are less familiar to him. In the second part of the book, the narrator is introduced to another writer visiting India - a certain Paul Theroux which is kind of amusing but it also comes across as a bit self-congratulating - although this Mr Theroux is talked about in less than complimentary terms. It's amusing but adds little to the story.
The mystery of the murder is only really dealt with in the final part of the book - and things pick up a lot here. Up to that point the narrator has been too obsessed with Mrs Unger to do much sleuthing. The writer finds the dismembered hand of the victim - ie a dead hand. And if you hadn't made the connection with that and the writers 'dead hand' or writer's block - again it is explicitly spelt out for you. Come on, Mr Theroux, give your readers a little more credit - we are not totally stupid! This unravelling of the story leads us to the horrors of child-labour and the realities of the economy in India.
Of course, there are some lovely Theroux touches as well - and the Indian characters are without fail more interesting than the American characters in the book. But it's a long way from his best work.
Many thanks to the publishers, Hamish Hamilton Books for inviting The Bookbag to review this book.
I enjoyed Paul Theroux's previous offering, The Elephanta Suite rather more and John Pilger's Freedom Next Time tells of the realities of India's economic boom, while AS Byatt's Booker-nominated The Children's Book, is another recent example of a novelist putting a writer at the centre of their books.
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