Headline Review, £16.99, 339pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Flying Man, By Roopa Farooki

Roopa Farooki cites her late father, Nasir Farooki, and his gambler's life, as the inspiration for her fifth novel. Her words are warm and were we to read the acknowledgement before the novel, we might imagine a story that pays homage to a roguishly loveable father. However roguish the central character of The Flying Man might be - a charlatan by trade, despite his family wealth - he is not loveable but a shallow, selfish charmer. Farooki creates a difficult, despicable anti-hero and attempts to shed light on what keeps him in his psychologically stunted state.

Maqil Sunny Karam – who gives himself scores of other fake names – is unsentimentally drawn, though not without comic humanity. The sole survivor of a twin pregnancy, baby Maqil has fed off his stillborn brother's nutrients in the womb. This parasitic relationship becomes a metaphor for a lifetime's habit of feeding off others' fortunes. What enables this slippery line of work is a natural charisma which becomes the single tool of his trade.

He is able to cajole, dissemble and convince with an exquisite spider's-web blend of mendacity and charm. Duplicity begins at Columbia University, where he changes his heritage "like a costume", and these student years become a learning ground for Janus-faced careerism, as he realises his love of the anonymity and the adrenalin-rush that this jet-set life gives him.

Yet it is not his gambling but his compulsive escape from a fixed, "ordinary" existence that is the real addiction. His governing principle is not to get bored, which leads him to leave his first, second and third wives. In hindsight, he regrets sabotaging his life's only meaningful relationship, with Wife Number Two, Samira, whom he gets pregnant by underhand means before beating a retreat back to bachelorhood.

There is plenty of colour to his story – even prison becomes a business opportunity. Yet ultimately, he is a sordid, unsympathetic character. Even his growing self-awareness does not redeem him. His stream of consciousness, which oscillates from narcissism to self-loathing to glimmers of self-knowledge to self-pity, becomes oppressive, though the exuberant prose attempts to give it uplift. He might be a gifted charmer but he remains unattractive to the reader. His inability to win over his children as he charms the rest of the world appears deliberate and perverse. Even he wonders "what kind of monster he is, to be really so indifferent".

Ever since her feted debut, Bitter Sweets, Farooki has excelled in writing stories that span continents and mix cultures. Here again, Maqil's story stretches beyond the Lahore of his birth to Paris, Biarritz, London and New York. It is moving that his story should come to an end just as he is jotting down every fake name, identity, address, that has given this multicultural life its shape. His mentality, in some sense, captures that of the consummate immigrant outsider, except that his is a Sisyphean struggle. He is forever doomed to adapt, chameleon-like, unable to stray beyond the borders of the worlds he traverses, unable to give himself a fixed identity or, ultimately, to call a place his home.

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