With a cover like this, who could resist? Seriously though, it was the Calcutta setting and my wanting to give Paul Theroux another shot after his unlikable My Other Life that made me pick up this book.The story is based on a murder mystery- a dead child turns up in a hotel room, and the hero, an 'aimless travel writer' named Jerry Delfont, is hired by an American philanthropist, Mrs. Merrill Unger, to see if he can use his contacts to discreetly investigate. The corpse is dumped by someone in the hotel room of Mrs. Unger's son's best friend, and the friend Rajat runs away from the scene. So, understandably, she wants to help him out.
This is the part that gets annoying: Jerry’s constant descriptions of the nature of Mrs. Unger- good, unselfish, sensual, confident, efficient, motherly, etc.etc. It becomes a real case of ‘more tell and less show’; indeed, I was tempted to shout at times while reading, “We get it, Theroux, the woman is an amazing goddess of charity and light- do you have to bang us on the head with a copper-bottomed pan for us to UNDERSTAND?”
The story loses punch because of this constant hammering. In the end, we do not even know how the poor corpse died; the narrative is simply carried along by Jerry’s somewhat down-in-the-dumps musings in the midst of his obsession. But then there are the observations about Calcutta and us Indians that do ring true. In fact, most took on a slightly poignant hue, now that I also know my own husband’s views on being an outsider in this country. Also there is an episode where Jerry gets to meet- get this- Paul Theroux- during the latter’s visit to Calcutta. I found this hilarious, although it was a rather pitiless account of his own self.
All in all, I did enjoy the book. I feel Theroux redeemed himself somewhat, even if his photo on the back cover shows him to be rather tense and displeased. Maybe I will pick up another piece of fiction by him again. His sense of place, his characterizations and deadpan humor are the big attractions.