The Bloodstone Papers, by Glen Duncan

A mixed-race passage from India and a father's recollections
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The Independent Culture

Anglo-Indians are an obscure minority. In the hierarchy of the Raj, they perched midway between the British and the Indians. The British declined to mix with their mixed-race offspring, while the Anglo-Indians, in turn, remained resolutely aloof from the Indians.

The privileges of "cheechees" included reserved employment: on the Indian Railways and in the Post Office. When independence arrived in 1947, their elevated status was threatened and thousands retreated to a "fatherland" most had never seen. Glen Duncan's novel deals with one, Ross Monroe, and his departure from India.

Ross is a boxer who hopes his pugilistic skills will secure his family a place on the boat. His tale is narrated in present-day London by his son, Owen, writing a novel based around his father's recollections. Another link to the past is Owen's efforts to trace his father's old enemy Skinner, a debonair Englishman who Ross believes betrayed him. Meanwhile, in contrast to Ross's youthful quest to secure a future, Owen is staring into the void of mid-life. He supports himself by teaching, bar work and penning classy pornography, all distractions from pining for his lost soulmate, Scarlet.

There are a number of achievements here. Where a lesser writer could flounder into self-indulgence with a novel-within-a-novel structure, Duncan crafts it to seem naturalistic. In the process, he enters the heads of Ross, Owen and Kate - Ross's wife - and inhabits them with profound characterisations. We also share Ross's ambivalent emotions in the boxing ring. External reality vanishes as he dances sensuously with his opponents, all the while searching coldly for opportunities to batter them unconscious.

Duncan is equally adept at rendering the bathos of Owen's relations with women. Romantic illusions have dissipated and Owen is acutely sensitive to the awkwardness of every fresh alliance. Nonetheless, Owen finds wry comedy in his physical decline.

Duncan's historical research, too, has produced flawless results: I can vouch for that, because my mother is Anglo-Indian. A myriad of fine detail captures this forgotten race: their blinkered sentimentality, unwavering Christian faith and easy affinity with all things Indian - other than, sadly, the Indians themselves. Crucially, there is the corrosive insecurity of entrapment between alien cultures. The Bloodstone Papers is Duncan's sixth novel and marks his coming-of-age as one of our finest writers.

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