More Than You Can Say, By Paul Torday

I now pronounce you man and woefully unconvincing plot
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The Independent Culture

With his 2006 bestselling debut, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Paul Torday showed that he was adept at a certain kind of comedy writing, producing gentle satire of the upper-middle classes pitched somewhere between PG Wodehouse and Tom Sharpe.

His three novels since then have followed the same pattern with less success, while also adding notes of darkness.

In More Than You Can Say, Torday darkens things further, dealing with subject matter such as terrorism, war and post-traumatic stress disorder. But at the same time, he seems unable or unwilling to reject his knockabout, light comedic style. The result is a novel that constantly jars the reader, stumbling as it does from second-rate farce to apparently deep and meaningful passages on the current global political situation and the military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, written with such a lack of forcefulness and understanding as to be cringeworthy. To make matters worse, Torday has chosen to house the whole thing inside the framework of a thriller plot, but a plot so riddled with gaping holes that it suggests he must hardly have read a political thriller in his life.

Our narrator is Richard Gaunt, a veteran of campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan who is finding it hard to adjust to life back on Civvy Street. Like most of Torday's characters, he is upper class and oddly naïve, speaking and acting as if he lives on a country estate in the 1920s. So much so that it comes as a shock when he mentions trappings of the modern world such as mobile phones and emails.

In the book's opening, Gaunt makes a daft wager with other well-to-do members of a private London gentlemen's club called The Diplomat. As a result of this, he finds himself walking to Oxford through the night – only to be abducted on the way by shadowy figures. He is taken to a country house where a Mr Khan offers him £10,000 to marry someone he has never met. Apparently down on his luck and drifting through life, Gaunt agrees, and then almost instantly regrets the decision despite the fact that the woman in question is implausibly beautiful and elegant.

So far, the story is amiable enough, albeit hardly riveting and with prose and characterisation that persist in making the reader feel like he or she is in a weird time bubble. As the story progresses, however, the problems with tone and plot become overwhelming. We begin to get a lot of back story, covering Gaunt's time in the Army, his initial return to England and a break-up with his then-girlfriend, Emma. The flashbacks to Iraq, where Gaunt saw and participated in terrible acts, are clumsy and deeply unconvincing, with none of the emotive power Torday is aiming for. The sections that deal with Gaunt's relationship with Emma, presumably intended to demonstrate his difficulty in readjusting to normal life in the wake of these traumatic tours of duty, are so mundane and predictable that they make your brain freeze.

Back in the present day, Gaunt staggers around London and various luxuriant country manors, either with or without Adeena, the girl he has married, exposing massive and basic holes in the plot as well as some wafer-thin characterisation of the supposed bad guys and the various security services he comes into contact with. As the book climaxes in a tepid terrorism plot and chase, credibility flies out of the window leaving a mess of a story, and the reader thoroughly let down.

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