Some regular readers of this blog may remember the over-the-top reviews I wrote of Glen Duncan’s werewolf trilogy: The Last Werewolf, Tallula Rising, and By Blood We Live. I enjoyed those books so thoroughly that I thought I would give Duncan a try in another context: The Bloodstone Papers, an ordinary literary-fiction novel. This book, as it turns out, also talks about sex and death — but there’s nothing supernatural about it.
The Bloodstone Papers gives us Owen Monroe, a morose, middle-aged Anglo-Indian teacher in London in 2004. He pieces out a living teaching English, tending bar at a place called Neon Hallelujah, and writing pornography under the pseudonym Millicent Nash. You’d think this would keep him busy, but in fact he spends most of his time mourning his vanished ex-girlfriend Scarlet, and obsessing over his own mortality.
But Owen also has a project that takes him out of himself: a biography of his parents, Ross and Kate Monroe, Anglo-Indians who grew up in pre-partition India. Owen is interested in finding out as much as possible about his parents, and thus finding out what sort of man he may yet become; Ross is obsessed by a con-man figure named Skinner, who may or may not have duped him repeatedly during the 1940s and ’50s. The chapters alternate between modern London and partition-era India.
Skinner is a fascinating character, running in and out of the story with his guileless English face, close-shaven chin, and blue eyes. The secret to his scams, perpetrated on educated Anglo-Indians, is his pretense at race-blindness: they are thrilled at being treated like an equal by an Englishman, as if “the haze of color and class had evaporated.” When Skinner says “Trust me,” they do, even when they know better. Owen, listening to these stories, torments himself with the question of whether Skinner, or any white person, has ever regarded any Anglo-Indian (“or Eurasian or East Indian or half-caste or mongrel or pariah or cheechee or Chutney Mary, depending on your angle”) as an equal.
It’s clear that Owen is writing his own story as much as his parents’.
They were born before the Camps, the Bomb, the Moon, the Ozone, the Internet, the End of History. For them the big things don’t change: God, Fate, Love, Time, Beginnings, Endings. Good and Evil.
Ross agrees with Owen that the changing times, in robbing him of belief, have played a dirty trick on him (not unlike the conman Skinner):
Things were simpler then. You got married, it was for good. You believed in God, it was for good. The big things meant something to us, you know? We didn’t know any different, but we weren’t miserable like you buggers today.
And it is true that Owen may be wiser than his parents, but he’s a lot less happy, too. The chapters move back and forth between Owen’s lethargic, self-pitying life and the active, imaginative life of Ross and Kate. To be honest, my heart beat a little faster every time I saw an Indian city and a midcentury date at the top of the chapter, setting me free from modern London. It’s not just about blame, either: Owen’s constant harping on his ex-girlfriend gave me the pip. He’s able to give his own mother agency even in her past (something an awful lot of children can’t do for their parents), but his imagination about his ex-girlfriend is primarily sexual. When he’s confronted with the evidence that she is someone different than his imaginary construct, won’t listen. The howl of mortality in his ears is too loud.
I was very interested in a lot of what The Bloodstone Papers had to say, especially about race, caste, and class. Duncan is very acute when he talks about the temptation to sell your soul to be treated, not just as equal, but alike. It’s got humor in it, too, and approaches its halfway subjects from a number of different angles. I especially liked Owen’s mother, who escapes from a nightmarish household and is the strength of her family from then on. But it’s far from a perfect book. I think we’re supposed to find Owen interesting, caught in his agnostic existence, but he’s a bit too much of a damp rag to be a really interesting character. He continues to resist the lessons of the universe — the lessons of the book — all the scams Skinner is selling: take a chance, live a little. Trust me.