A cunningly concealed family history is laboriously unearthed in Theroux’s alternately absorbing and slightly disappointing second novel (after A Stranger in the Earth, 1999).
It’s a tale of two continents, two families, and disguised and intersecting identities, narrated by Damien March, a low-level American-born BBC-TV journalist who returns to the island of Ionia, off Cape Cod, to claim the house left to him in his writer uncle Patrick’s will. It’s also two novels. The first is a wry and very funny account of Damien’s unglamorous career and personal life (lived in part as self-exile from his father, an eccentric Anglophile, and his brother, a vainglorious movie star). The second is a mystery, set in motion when Damien discovers his uncle’s unfinished manuscript, containing stories featuring “Sherlock Holmes’s smarter brother” Mycroft, as well as details presumably linked to Patrick March’s neighbors, and climaxing with a “confession” that confirms Damien’s fatalistic conclusion that “a family can die while its nominal members are still living.” Theroux wraps it all up neatly in a penultimate chapter detailing Damien’s visit to his father in Italy, and with the revelation of his uncle’s most closely guarded secret in the final sentence. Much of this charms and satisfies, because Theroux fils (son of novelist and travel-writer Paul) is a graceful and witty enough stylist to keep us turning pages eagerly, even when little is happening or, conversely, too much is being summarized too abruptly. Other pleasures include hilariously dead-on imitations of Victorian “High Style” and Conan Doyle’s Holmes adventures. All the more curious, therefore, that an elaborately designed plot (Patrick’s—in more senses than one) is crammed into scarcely more than 50 pages.
Diverting and provocative, nevertheless.