Three layers of feeling: first, a gauzy filament of distress and compassion; second, a richer stratum of satisfaction at discharging my duty to know what’s going on in the world; third, a fathomless bedrock of boredom and self-disgust, since the deep knowledge, the knowledge of myself is that I’m not going to do anything about it, not even write a letter to my MP. Not even open the email from Oxfam when it comes: Darfur: Humanitarian Disaster, though I’ll lack for weeks the integrity to delete it.
If you need further confirmation that the world is unfair, consider Glen Duncan. Here is a frighteningly talented writer, the sort who cuts through all our cherished stratagems to uncover the nasty truth–with seemingly no more effort than pitting an olive. His prose is otherworldly in its intelligence. The plot, spectacular. And no-one I’ve talked to (including English professors and the will-work-for-books types) has heard of him. Taco Bell’s hot sauce has more fans on Facebook.
The Bloodstone Papers (2006) has two timelines here–one of the narrator, Owen, set in contemporary England, and the other of Owen’s parents in nineteen forties India, in the last days of the British Raj. Ross and Kate are Anglo-Indian (the term commonly used to refer to those who possess both Indian and British ancestry), and must face the giant question–what will become of them once Britain quits the country? Of India, but not Indian, of Britain ( a near-mythical “home” to most), but denied the rights granted to whites, most Anglo-Indians are not in a happy place, and their fate often depends on their position on the beige shade card–a whiter shade of pale, and they can pass as European, get British passports, leave India. Skin color is everything, and Owen/Duncan meticulously notes the distinctions. Owen’s niece is nutmeg brown, his mother is papyrus-colored, a jeweller mocha. A man servant is Cherry Blossom dark tan shoe polish. Very white skin. Milky coffee coloring. An uncle is “an Anglo fair-skinned enough to be taken for an Englishman”. Duncan is Anglo-Indian himself, and he details the cultural script of this community intimately; seldom can such a minute variation in melanin have signified so much to a people.
And as for our narrator: Too pale for acceptance by British South Asians, and too dark to be considered English, the “racially-tricky” Owen has always been an outsider. As a child, he was taunted by his (white) school-mates and mostly ignored by his teachers, and now, in post-9/11 security paranoia, he’s mistaken for Arab. His young niece finally pronounces him beige (“Like Hovis”); Owen has learnt to rub along with that. At thirty-nine, he teaches at college part-time, works at a bar some evenings, and writes porn on the side for additional income.
Cynical, intelligent, and appallingly self-aware, Owen is saved from creepiness due to his honesty, and more vitally, his unfashionable love for his family. All his spare time is taken up helping Ross track the man who betrayed him fifty years ago and consequently ruined his life. Amongst those betrayals is the theft of Ross’s cherished bloodstone ring, bequeathed to Ross by his mother, invested with memory and history and a bucket of filial guilt. A spot of googling tells me that in gemstone lore, the bloodstone is a symbol of justice. Irony, what?
There is a glorious gloppy tangle of a plot, but more thrilling: Duncan takes on the big themes–love, death, fate, aging, sex, war–and proceeds to say something original and insightful about each. YES. I haven’t finished the book yet (this is the first time I’m blogging about a book before completion), but The Bloodstone Papers makes me evangelical about Duncan’s work. He’s published seven astounding novels; why isn’t he a Booker-listed, honorary-doctorated, papparazzi-trailing required-reading lit. god? Gottosay, though, I’m saddened but not surprised by his lack of fame. We live in an age where a public largely indifferent to the art of reading pays homage to brand-name celebrity; getting recognition as an author, even of magnificent novels is, you know, like getting blood from a stone.