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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

A Dead Hand

by
Paul Theroux


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase A Dead Hand



Title: A Dead Hand
Author: Paul Theroux
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009
Length: 279 pages
Availability: A Dead Hand - US
A Dead Hand - UK
A Dead Hand - Canada
A Dead Hand - India
Omicidio a Calcutta - Italia
Un crimen en Calcutta - España
  • A Crime in Calcutta

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Our Assessment:

B : a bit too forced -- the mystery, and all the 'hand' stuff -- but enough that's well-observed

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 16/11/2009 William Sutcliffe
The Independent . 27/11/2009 James Urquhart
Independent on Sunday . 15/11/2009 Doug Johnstone
The LA Times B 27/1/2010 Tim Rutten
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/2/2010 Jason Goodwin
San Francisco Chronicle . 14/2/2010 Charles Matthews
The Scotsman . 14/11/2009 Allan Massie
Sunday Times . 8/11/2009 Peter Parker
The Telegraph . 9/11/2009 Jake Kerridge
The Times . 12/12/2009 Kate Saunders
The Washington Post . 22/2/2010 Patrick Anderson


  From the Reviews:
  • "Entertaining though this novel certainly is, it seems undecided about what it is attempting to be: travelogue, thriller, erotic reverie or meditation on an ageing writer’s loss of creative energy." - William Sutcliffe, Financial Times

  • "As always, Theroux delivers pungent atmosphere, capturing the humid stench and labyrinthine decay of pre-monsoon Calcutta, but A Dead Hand seems caught between ideas, never quite fulfilling the promise of a mystery, nor having much of substance to say about mojo or muse." - James Urquhart, The Independent

  • "The crime element of the storyline disappears for large stretches, leaving a lot of time for Delfont to ponder existentially on his writer's block, observe modern India and daydream about Mrs Unger. As the two embark on a rather unlikely affair, there are long, tedious passages of tantric massage and sex, embarrassing scenes that will hopefully result in Theroux gaining a nomination in the next Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. That said, there is plenty of good writing in A Dead Hand." - Doug Johnstone, Independent on Sunday

  • "The subtitle suggests that Theroux intends this new volume to be considered as a novel of crime and detection, which makes it his first venture into that genre. On those terms, it's not a particularly successful novel, but this being Theroux it's frequently an interesting one. The initial difficulty arises from the plotting, which is ramshackle at best with a central secret that you'll probably figure out midway through the book." - Tim Rutten, The Los Angeles Times

  • "There’s plenty of good, sharp observation in the novel, but the central riddle of Mrs. Unger -- the nature of her interest in Delfont, her background, her religiosity -- never really catches fire." - Jason Goodwin, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Is A Dead Hand a truthful book about India? It certainly has all those "unbearable" things that Mrs. Unger enumerates. It also has an abundance of richly drawn characters, Mrs. Unger the most enigmatic and scariest of them. Theroux has used his travel writer's eye and ear and his novelist's imagination to craft a tense, disturbing, funny and horrifying book around all of them." - Charles Matthews, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The novel could work only if Mrs Unger exerted the same fascination on the reader as she does on Jerry, but she remains flat on the page, an idea never translated into life. The long scenes in which she and Jerry engage in reciprocal massage must surely be candidates for the Literary Review's Bad Sex prize. Even the crime which might have given some urgency to the novel fails in this respect, though at least Jerry's investigation gives rise to a couple of the book's more lively scenes." - Allan Massie, The Scotsman

  • "Greatness is not much in evidence in this sloppily written and infuriatingly repetitious book. As so often with Theroux, images are lazily recycled (.....) Unlike Delfont, Theroux clearly doesn’t suffer from writer’s block: A Dead Hand is his 31st work of fiction and gives every impression of being written in a hurry and without the bother of revision." - Peter Parker, Sunday Times

  • "Well, if Theroux gets everything wrong, he’s fooled me. His ability to sum up a city or a people in a few lines is undiminished." - Jake Kerridge, The Telegraph

  • "(T)he mystery surrounding the murder is genuinely intriguing." - Kate Saunders, The Times

  • "I had mixed feelings about this strange love story -- at best, it offers a bizarre fascination -- but I had no reservations about Theroux's writing. (...) (T)here is undeniable art in his vivid portrayal of an India that is beautiful, mysterious and often scary as hell." - Patrick Anderson, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Dead Hand is narrated by Jerry Delfont, a peripatetic Paul Theroux-like travel writer, currently (un)settled in Calcutta (no Kolkata -- as the city now styles itself -- for Delfont (or Theroux): the old name, and all its baggage, definitely belong to the story). Delfont may be Theroux-like (or Theroux-lite), but Theroux adds a twist to make it clear (or at least suggest strongly) that, for once, the narrator of one of his novels is not him or some slightly alter(ed) ego: Theroux gives himself a walk-on part in the story, as he's briefly in town (as he actually was in early 2008, there to inaugurate the infamous cancelled-at-the-last-minute book fair). Delfont doesn't want to meet him, but agrees to a brief get-together, making for an odd but amusing back and forth between author and character (and author as character(s)); Theroux comes off as the slightly cleverer, but, really, they're just mirror images, as Theroux's ruse can't obscure the fact that Delfont, too, is just another version of him).
       A Dead Hand is littered with hands and hand-references; two of the hands are dead: one literally, the other figuratively. Delfont is the one with the dead hands -- first only the one:

I had nothing else to do. This was a blank period in my trip, and in my life. My hand had gone dead too; after that arresting opening about the atmosphere having the tickle and itch of a bulging vacuum cleaner bag, I could not continue. I'd thought I had something to write. I'd never had a dead hand before.
       No simple writer's block for him: he has a dead hand -- which, of course, also suggests that there's something very mechanical about his writing, that it doesn't spring from his imagination.
       With nothing else to do he finds himself intrigued when he gets a letter from a Mrs. Merrill Unger, in which she asks him to help her with an unusual situation: an Indian friend of her son's was staying at a hotel, only to wake up and find a corpse on the floor of his room. He fled the scene, and Unger wants Delfont -- whose writing, she says, she and her son greatly admire -- to look into the case. She remains vague in her letter -- in case Delfont doesn't want to pursue it -- but even when he does everything about this incident remains rather vague and bizarre.
       Delfont meets her, and is soon quite taken with her. A rich widow, she is a quiet philanthropist, doing good work under the radar in Calcutta (not at all in publicity-seeking Mother Teresa style). She has also adopted some Indian ways, and recommends to Delfont (and introduces him to) a variety of Indian-specialties, from food to a form of massage -- which she herself provides. Soon enough, Delfont finds himself in her hands in a variety of ways, including the most literal:
Her hands -- the arousing hands that had brought me to a pitch of delirium. Her words had never meant as much to me as her hands; her words were so abstract or esoteric as to be meaningless. But her hands had been all over me, every bit of my body, inside me. She had made me with her hands, made me her own.
       Delfont plays amateur-detective, visiting the hotel where the body supposedly appeared (and, apparently, disappeared -- no one acknowledges a corpse being found) but not making much headway. Meanwhile, he remains under Mrs. Unger's spell, though she remains in every respect elusive. And there's another love-interest, of sorts, a young Indian woman, Parvati, who is already in her early thirties and still unmarried; she is drawn to Delfont, but he tries to keep some distance, because the cultural differences between them make any sort of physical relationship impossible.
       The nearly impossible case does take a turn when Delfont obtains some hard evidence that a crime actually was committed: a girl who worked at the hotel gives him ... yes, a dead hand. This, of course, becomes Delfont's totem:
I had the dead hand. That was the only thing that kept me here. It represented the innermost India, a pathetic trophy and the key to a mystery I had not yet solved. If I could have taken it with me, I would have gone. But I had to stay here and protect it, to attach it to its owner, whoever that might be.
       The dead hand and the surrounding circumstances do, at least, seem to enliven his other dead hand, and he gets to writing again -- and Theroux doesn't stop with his author-cameo, as he can't keep himself from twisting A Dead Hand into yet another self-reflexive knot, with Delfont scribbling away:
     I sat on the upper verandah of the Hastings and wrote the beginnings of what I imagined might be a novella, something I'd call "A Dead Hand." I needed to fictionalize, top give myself lassitude to invent. The title was one that it seemed had been chosen for me, because, unable to write, I'd felt I had a dead hand. And the moment an actual dead hand had come into my possession, I recaptured my ability to write. I was now awakened, in the live hands of Mrs. Unger. I kept her name for my main character because I didn't intend to take any liberties with her.
       (That last sentence is, of course, particularly sly, but otherwise things are spelt out entirely too directly.)
       As to the mystery that's been staged here, the clues remain few and far between. With help from the ever-helpful local American consular official, Howard, Delfont gets the (real) dead hand examined -- which reveals that it is that of a young boy, and that it has no fingerprints, the prints worn off from some kind of manual labor.
       Mrs. Unger, meanwhile, turns out not to be exactly not who she appears -- in several respects (yes, once again: both literally and figuratively) -- and eventually Delfont is able to piece everything together, revealing what exactly happened, and why. As Howard tells him, shortly before they figure it all out:
It's pure Henry James, The big clue hidden somewhere in the weave. Puzzle it out and you have the answer. You know the story ? 'The Figure in the Carpet.'
       Of course, Delfont/Theroux know the story.
       The mystery is passable, though the explanation hardly comes as much of a surprise by the end. But it's a fairly rickety skeleton for Theroux to try to build his book around, especially as he is fascinated by so much else -- including seductive Mrs.Unger, whom Delfont goes completely ga-ga over. But more even than that, Theroux wants to write an India -- and specifically Calcuttan -- homage.
       The words he puts in Howard's mouth also go for him:
     "One of the many things I love about Calcutta is its Victorian texture. It's Jamesian. Not just the grandiose architecture, but the people too. Women need chaperones. They don't marry for love. Dr. Mooly Mukherjee is a Victorian figure. His mustache is dated. Even the words he uses. 'Repository.' 'Blighter.' 'Mountebank.'"
       It's the Indian contrasts, too -- the poverty and filth, the (un)natural order of things (Theroux is fascinated by the many people who know their place and very specific roles, and how only certain people can (or would think to) perform certain actions) -- that he revels in, and it's all this he tries to wrap up in a Jamesian mystery. His real dead-hand mystery isn't much more fascinating than the one in his mind (can there be anything more boring than writers moaning about writer's block -- beyond their describing how they get over it ?), but Theroux does atmosphere and details well, and there are nicely observed scenes throughout.
       It does not add up to enough (or rather, it doesn't add up quite right) -- and, yes, it's definitely heavy-handed --, but Theroux-fans will certainly find enough to enjoy. (Those new to the author would be advised to start elsewhere -- if they want their India-fix, the considerably stronger The Elephanta Suite is certainly a good start.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 October 2009

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Links:

A Dead Hand: Reviews: Paul Theroux: Other books by Paul Theroux under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Paul Theroux has written almost two dozen novels and a number of excellent travel books, the most famous being The Great Railway Bazaar. He has taught in Uganda and Singapore, and he lived in England for a long time. Several of his books have been filmed (including The Mosquito Coast) and a TV series was made of his stories, The London Embassy and The Consul's Files.

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© 2009-2012 the complete review

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