Skip to Content

Books

Has Paul Theroux finally lost it?

Suzi Feay imagines how his hapless editor must have felt when confronted with his vast, rambling Mother Land

2 December 2017

9:00 AM

2 December 2017

9:00 AM

Mother Land Paul Theroux

Hamish Hamilton, pp.509, £20

As I ploughed through this semi-autobiographical behemoth about an author and travel writer obsessed with his siblings and mother, I tried to imagine what a hapless editor might have had to say about the manuscript. ‘I like the way you, I mean Jay the narrator, makes the point that your, sorry his, mother is just like a scheming medieval queen, but I think you can assume readers willing to tackle 500-page literary novels will remember, so you don’t need to keep saying it, especially since the idea’s implied in the title,’ such a person might begin.

‘Likewise, the idea that the siblings interact like members of cannibal tribes that Jay encounters on his travels. So funny and apt, but just the one mention will do. Going forward, there’s a lot of telling rather than showing. Perhaps you could actually dramatise some of this? And regarding the length, I love the Mr Bones flashback bit, where Jay’s timid father briefly comes alive while acting in a minstrel show, but apart from that, do we even need the first 200 pages? After all, the story only really gets going with the discovery of adult Charlie, the firstborn Jay sent out for adoption. And he gets forgotten about as the story goes on — maybe fix that?


‘I think you could get away with just the one incidence of the elderly white narrator trying to hook up with an impoverished woman of colour half his age. But when he also hits on the worker in his mother’s care home, it starts to look creepy — the unequal power thing, you know? And the references to women who are still fanciable despite not being beautiful or young are a teensy bit condescending.

‘Novels about novelists are one thing, but your lead character’s occasional grumbles about literary critics, and particularly his rage about the eight-page unfavourable book review he once got, just isn’t a good look. Halfway through I thought, given that this isn’t a thriller, there’s only one way this book can end. I peeked, and I was right. Could you make the arc, if we can call it that, a little less predictable?

‘Still, there’s so much to love, Paul; so many psychological insights and wonderful turns of phrase. Still got the magic! I’m wondering about the potential readership though. People whose families are made up of saints and angels might find the portrayal of the Justus family (Just us — brilliant!) fascinating. Everyone else is likely to say they’ve got a bunch of selfish misfits of their own to worry about. Best wishes, your editor.’


Show comments

Comments

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

Close