Filler content with bloodstone

This review was posted to the old TTA Press website on 3 August 2007:-

THE BLOODSTONE PAPERS by GLEN DUNCAN
Simon & Schuster paperback, 405pp, £12.99

There are two main strands to this novel, each intercut with and informing the other. One strand is set in India in the 1930s through to the 1950s, taking in all the major events, such as WW2 and Independence. The main character is Ross Monroe, an Anglo-Indian and thus part of the race who helped the British run the Raj, but now marginalised in the wake of Independence. Ross is a talented boxer with dreams of going to the Olympics and making a career for himself as a fighter, but his chances are squandered when he is drawn into the schemes of British fraudster Skinner, the man who engineers the theft of Monroe’s family heirloom, his mother’s treasured bloodstone ring. With his boxing career in ruins and facing criminal charges, Monroe’s only hope is to escape to Britain. Part of this story is told from the viewpoint of Kate, the woman Monroe loves and comes to marry, detailing her unhappy childhood and the steps she was forced to take to avoid the attentions of an abusive uncle.

Against this strand we have the present day and the tale of Owen Monroe, the couple’s son, a dilettante academic and writer of pornographic novels. Owen is researching his father’s past, with a view to writing a more serious work, and as a sideline to that he is hunting for Ross’ nemesis, the conman Skinner. A fortuitous stroke brings him into contact with Skinner’s daughter, and a climactic meeting is engineered between the two old men.

This is a rich and textured novel, one that takes in both the personal and the historic. Somewhat like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children it attempts to make sense of the end of the Raj, this time seen from the viewpoint of people who are, simply by accident of birth, doomed to be outsiders, all their dreams and wishes coming to nought. Ross’ plight is mirrored in that of his son, another stranger in a strange land, his alienation given physical form when he is held for questioning as a possible terrorist simply because he likes to hang out in airports and his skin is the wrong colour. You sense also that his aspirations for literary success are just as fated to fail as his father’s sporting hopes, each undone by a flaw in his own character. Unlike Ross however, Owen does not have the love of a good woman to redeem him; his relationships are as unsuccessful and transitory as everything else in his life and there’s the suggestion in all this that not only is he an outsider but has made himself so.

Ultimately what gave me pause was the ending of the book, though it’s difficult to see how Duncan could have done it any other way. The longed for revenge is shown as futile, leaving both father and son to make their peace with the past, and in its way that wasn’t quite conclusive enough for me. I wanted something more substantial.

While it may have lacked the immediacy and personal impact of Death of an Ordinary Man, my only previous encounter with Duncan’s oeuvre, The Bloodstone Papers compensated in so many other ways. It is a substantial and moving book in its own right, remarkable for its detailed character studies, its assured and insightful grasp of outsider psychology (Duncan himself is an Anglo-Indian and so writes from an informed perspective), and the way in which the sweep of history is embraced, tying together the personal and the epic with knots that simply won’t unravel.

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