The Bloodstone Papers by Glen Duncan

From India to Bolton
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The Independent Culture

"The Book" is another of Owen's buff envelopes. When he isn't teaching English at Wimbledon's third-rate Arbuthnot College, The Book is Owen's rambling pretence at academia and curiosity about his heritage. Otherwise known as The Cheechee Papers, it embraces both Owen's attempt to imagine his way into the lives of his Anglo-Indian parents in pre-partition India, and snippets of historical detail ostensibly gathered for a study of the Anglo-Indians. Glen Duncan manages these fluid narrative boundaries magnificently, grafting Owen's present-day hunt for Skinner very naturally on to the Monroe family saga to produce his richly satisfying new novel.

Owen's sardonic commentary on his own love life and dissipated work habits keep The Bloodstone Papers rolling along with an easy humour buoyed up by Duncan's skill for quick, evocative characterisation. In particular, Vince, Owen's insecure, high camp lodger is a terrific cameo, injecting Owen's desultory affairs with barbs of his own post-coital or pre-cottage enthusiasm. But the succulent meat of this novel remains the back story of Ross Monroe's career as a boxer.

Ross's intuitive facility as a fighter, discovered through casually effective sucker punches at school, flourishes once he begins working the Bombay trains from his home in Bhusawal. Even during wartime, one of the Indian rail network's driving forces seems to be competitive sport, and Ross soon finds himself boxing for regional titles. The 1948 London Olympics loom as a possible goal, and a ticket out of India's increasing turmoil.

These fragile hopes become intimately bound to the slippery English figure of Skinner, much to the unease of Ross's supportive wife, Kate, both of whom he first encountered on the same (perhaps) fateful day. Ross had glimpsed Kate while waiting for his pals to emerge from a whorehouse, and had trailed her through the city until Skinner distracted him. Skinner's artful performance suckered Ross into a scam that relieved him of much cash and his cherished ancestral bloodstone ring of green chalcedony flecked with striking, blood-like spots of jasper.

The Bloodstone Papers is spotted with many synchronicities like this double encounter. Some are shameless but effective contrivances to impel the elaborate plot, while others remain more subtle, but each is heralded with a loud appeal to destiny. Deals with God, serendipitous coincidences, providential meetings and a "tryst with destiny" are all variously mooted as part of an occluded web of meaning that adds little to the novel. Together with Duncan's looping style, the patchwork of vibrantly coloured lives and the shared context of India's bloody partition, these invocations feel like a conscious echo of the interlocking, dynastic narratives in Salman Rushdie's beguiling novel Midnight's Children.

In The Bloodstone Papers, however, the claims for Purpose, Design or "a narrative intelligence at work" feel cumbersomely tagged on. It is a credit to Duncan's exuberant plotting that, like the pesky over-use of parentheses, this remains a conversational irritation rather than the sort of authorial scaffold that repeatedly smacks the reader's head.

Owen doesn't feel comfortably at home in London, Bolton or India so much as he does with Scarlet. Hers is the third buff folder in Owen's desk, documenting his fierce obsession with her from unlikely childhood fumblings to exotic adult lover. Her final, wistfully erotic encounter with Owen is a fateful case in point: it occurs by wild coincidence with the only seeming purpose of spotlighting Owen's own rootlessness.

Despite such gratuitous choreography, Duncan manages to fuse racial and personal dislocation beautifully in this long, seductive narrative. The Bloodstone Papers is primarily a terrific yarn, without too much portentous freight in tow.