Sunset boulevards

Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99

Neville "Bunt" Mullard is the proprietor of Imperial Stitching in Hong Kong, a tidy business specialising in the manufacture of elaborate badges for the breast pockets of British club blazers. Bunt (short for Baby Bunting) is 43 but lives with his mother in a house called Albion Cottage. He drives a 1958 Rover and listens to the news on an ancient Roberts Radio. The stuff of Bunt's daily life is made in Britain, built to last, but with the imminent handover of the colony to China, the durability of all things British is ironically beside the point. Paul Theroux is not a man to stint the signifiers. His latest novel, Kowloon Tong, can at times resemble a piece of Baroque statuary, so heavily encrusted with allegory that the subject seems to droop under the weight.

Theroux has rejected a panoramic vision of Hong Kong in its last days of empire for a straightforward domestic narrative. Bunt and his mother, Betty, are approached by the sinister Mr Hung, a representative of the Chinese army who wants to buy the auspiciously sited Imperial Stitching building. Bunt at first refuses to take the "Chinky-Chonk" seriously, but it becomes clear that Mr Hung's "offer" is more in the nature of a requisition.

Blustering and bewildered, Bunt serves as a kind of expat everyman: "When had the subject peoples of the British empire ever been anything but riddles? The Chinese were a supreme and slitty example of that. They were always out of focus, and the nearer you got to them the harder they were to see." By the time Bunt adjusts his focus to the new reality, the game is up.

An habitue of Kowloon's "blue bars", Bunt fails to find relief in sex. "Sex was a balancing act that always ended in failure, a fall, a sense of having slipped and been inattentive; of not knowing how to explain it. You refused to remember it, and when you tried again the failure was repeated."

Such attentive articulation of complex emotion marks Theroux as a writer at the height of his powers, and makes the reader all the more impatient with the slapdash characterisation in the bulk of the novel. Mr Hung is given one brilliantly paced scene explaining the esoteric pleasures of Chinese cuisine: "'This is delicious because it has been strung up' he said. 'You know how? Some string - tie it'. He made deft throttling and knotting gestures with his fingers, 'Truss it well and hang it for days. Let it air dry. Just dangle there.'" The rest of the time, however, Hung is your standard inscrutable, straight from the files of Charlie Chan.

Similarly, Betty Mullard with her slipping dentures and racist remarks is a grand guignol horror, a cross between Maggie Thatcher and Giles's Grandma. Nuances of speech are lovingly observed, but occasionally jar. The racism and vulgarity of the expats are surely best left unembellished. And when was the last time a doughty matron reached for her "gamp" when the weather turned nasty?

Unsurprisingly, some of the best passages of Kowloon Tong are Theroux's evocation of atmosphere. Long after the book is finished, the taste of Hong Kong - the gritty air and bus fumes, the stewed steam of the mottled sea-water sloshing against the pier, the foul dust from the land reclamation - is vivid in the reader's mouth. Patchily accomplished, but always readable, Kowloon Tong hovers between realism and satire. If it is realism, the characters are too gross. If it is satire, the story is too small. The problem - not perhaps such a big one - is a problem of scale.

Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
exhibition Gillian Orr traces the movement from Bram Stoker to Kate Bush
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone