Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Bloodstone Papers by Glen Duncan

Chutney Mary amongst friends?

I can confirm that I have now completely caught up on Glen Duncan’s backlist and can happily begin reading the werewolf trilogy (starting with The Last Werewolf) when time and tide allows – that’s the waxing and waning tide of my habitually meandering attention. The Bloodstone Papers is now safely under the belt and committed to the somewhat over capacity bookshelves in the lounge. 

I often feel that to talk about a favourite writer’s writing (albeit metaliterally, if such an adjective exists) is somewhat disingenuous, that it cannot always do justice to the effort, intelligence and craft of an author. I may have used this somewhere before, but I vividly recall reading a quote attributed to Dylan Thomas but which I can no longer find and therefore verify, where he likens the putting onto paper of an idea to the catching of a large and terrible fish, which once landed following Herculean effort must necessarily end up lifeless. This tends to encapsulate the anxiety I feel when I consider reviewing a book by an author for whom I have the utmost respect and awe, a category reserved for writers such as Glen Duncan. Reviews of these works must necessarily lack the adequacy to truthfully represent what the author and book itself could mean, and from experience, end up being rather fitfully relevant or overly obsequious. How is this pertinent? Let me explain.

The Bloodstone Papers is a book which I had shunned on the assumption that I didn't care about colonial history, this being the presumed context of the novel from what I read on its rather attractive cover. Despite it being ‘A Duncan’, I really didn't want to read it if it was going to be a disappointment because of the subject matter. Having begun to read despite my objections, and having found that instead it entwined two timelines, that of “real-time” London-based son/author/teacher/Anglo-Indian Owen Monroe and 1940s India-based parents/Anglo-Indians Ross and Katie Monroe to create a passionate and beguiling narrative with a bloodstone ring at its fulcrum and very little real history to cloud the issue, I was beset by the predictable anxiety of reviewing something of which I was absolutely enamoured.

What a self-important chump – you might say – get on with the good stuff!

It began, I felt, and sorry for the weak simile, a bit like a new and improved version of an earlier work, Hope, with a narrator beset by his own demons, self-awareness a lifestyle he chooses rather than an awakening in the truer sense and therefore only a glossy veneer instead of a deep foundation – something Pasha Ross Monroe touches on towards the end in conversation with gay house mate (of son Owen) Vince – and all sorts of hints at darkness – the ubiquitous Scarlet / Hope figure – in the background. Quickly ushered in is the central premise of the book, a collation of the life stories of his parents into capital-T-The capital-B-Book, a publication more likely destined for the shredder than the bookshelves and vying for attention with a much more often visited dossier on capital-T-The capital-L-Lost capital-L-Love (my capitals, not his) and we’re back to Scarlet again. There are eddying sub plots, twists of moral reticence and rectitude, garnished heavily but appropriately with Duncan’s sad yet joyful wisdom, apposite remarks on time and life and middle class guilt and pretty much everything else. And as always, Duncan has so much time for love and sex that one wonders where the space was for all of the other amazing stuff he manages to smuggle between covers. On reflection, post-read, it left the indelible impression of a book about loss – of meaning, of identity or cultural purpose* and as always, ends near to where it begins, in this case with our narrator considering the start, middle and ending of The Book.

*The condition Stefan Zweig laments in his autobiography Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday) – namely of being in his case European but essentially stateless and therefore lacking a sense of cultural self. Of course, Zweig went on to kill himself and his wife in their last-visited refuge of Petrópolis, Brazil, whereas I can’t honestly see Duncan following suit, no matter how strong his personal beliefs. And I'm sure Duncan would choose something more exciting than barbiturates to do it too.