Review: Strange Bodies, By Marcel Theroux. Faber & Faber, £14.99


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Russia spawned some sinister scientists in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Nikolai Fedorov believed in immortality and resuscitation of the dead, while Trofim Lysenko's insistence on the inheritability of acquired characteristics was so embraced by Stalin that dissent was outlawed in 1948. It is from these malign seeds that Marcel Theroux has constructed his fifth novel, a compelling story that bends concepts of reality while keeping a grip on the most sceptical reader.

Nicholas Slopen, academic and editor of Samuel Johnson's letters, dies. Weeks later, a stranger appears claiming to be him. Is this man lying, deluded, or neither? Theroux's prose is taut; his first-person narrator as mesmerising as any of Ishiguro's. As with the latter, the reader searches the protagonist's words for signs of unreliability, but his urbane voice seems credible and sane, wryly witty and sprinkled with pithy insights .

The characters are satisfyingly complex, from the selfish early Nicholas to his drawling nemesis: ("I've never understood the attraction of the moral high ground. It's always struck me as an overpriced piece of real estate.") There are deliciously acidic observations: "Hilary said banal things all through the meal, which she barely touched... Flushed away by so much colonic hydrotherapy, so etiolated by Bikram yoga that she looked like gristle."

This is not only a chilling thriller. It's also a story of self-discovery: a person perceiving himself as others did only when it's too late.