Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Bloodstone Papers: A Review

I know several people for whom a novel is just a story -- something to be distilled to its barest essentials and then ingested summarily. To me, though, a novel is much more than the sum of all its parts -- the plot, the characters, the language, the ambience. A novel is something that you need to savor at leisure, rolling the words around in your tongue until you get all the last nuances of the prose, while still enjoying the storyline and empathizing with the characters.

Glen Duncan's The Bloodstone Papers offers all of the above. 
The novel is written in the first person and we hear the voice of the protagonist, a lecturer moonlighting as a porn novel writer and a bartender, in his late thirties who makes incisive observations on everything about life, including death. The Bloodstone Papers follows the story of two main characters, Owen, an Anglo-Indian in contemporary London who struggles with his identity, his one true love and his search for a direction in life and his father whose beginnings trace back to pre-independence and newly independent India/Pakistan. The novel switches back and forth between Owen and his novel about his father as it tracks the loneliness of Owen and the bloodstone ring that his father lost to a con-artist in India. The contemporary part of the novel is the most resonating as that is where the author is in his elements. Witness his commentary on aging and the tortured relationship that some children have with this fact about their parents

I shoulder my bag and begin to walk away, carrying the guilt of every grown-up son from the beginning of time, the guilt of knowing it's my world, now, not theirs. If they'd been younger when they had me, there would have been a period - me in my twenties, say, them in their mid-forties -- when the world was ours, together.

He distinguishes the voices of the past from the voices in the present with a single entity - God. While everything the principal characters in the past do is in some way related to their intense relationship with God, everything that the principal characters in the present do is influenced by their ambivalence towards, or denial of the existence of God.

Although there is the underlying plot of finding the bloodstone ring and confronting the con-artist, the novel is much more than a whodunit. It is about the fragmented lives of the protagonist and his family and friends. It lingers on their feelings as much as it lingers on their actions. Identity is a big issue across the generations in The Bloodstone Papers. Ross Monroe in India is often cautioned by Anglo-Indians as well as some Englishmen that once the English up and leave, they (Anglo-Indians) will be in grave danger. Owen in contemporary London denies ever wanting to be tagged as an Anglo-Indian
 I don't know what it means to be Anglo-Indian. I don't care what it means to be an Anglo-Indian.
He insists. But he does care. He cares that they are too small a race to matter. He cares that no one will believe them. He cares enough to mention it as part of his personal ad in the Guardian.

Of all the identities that Owen Monroe takes on, his role as a porn writer seems to have the most influence on the entire narrative. For this reason, the book may not be for everyone. However, there is something about his prose that makes even the more hard-to-take parts of the novel less repulsive.

If there is anything that strikes a discordant note in the work it is that Glen Duncan's pre-independence India simply does not ring true. It is rife with western generalizations about India, and anachronistically, it is rife with contemporary western generalizations about India. This is a bit of a let down, especially when you consider the level of understanding of, and empathy for, the human condition that you get to see throughout the book. That said, it does not detract significantly from the experience that is this book. India after all is not easy, even sometimes for Indians.

The Bloodstone Papers is definitely something I would recommend -- for the prose, for its compassion towards people who are not exactly society's idea of success and for, strangely, its sadness! However, this is probably not a book for the easily offended.

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urban djinn said...

Nice review & a great introduction to this book!

Agnija said...

Thanks! Glad you liked it.

Niranjana (Brown Paper) said...

A very interesting review, and I'm glad you liked the book. I agree it's not for the easily offended--a pity, because their scruples would make them miss out on a work of remarkable intelligence.

Agnija said...

Totally agree! It would be a pity to miss this book for just that reason.

Priya Shankar said...

Agnija! Thanks for your comment and really interesting review. Sometimes the pieces of literature that push boundaries or question norms really are the most eye opening.

I am so glad you found my blog and can't wait to read more of your writings! :)

Agnija said...

Thanks Priya! And yes, it is an edgy sort of novel.