Book Review: The Insult by Rupert Thomson

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What a strange, strange book this is! It suffers from many problems but the biggest is that the blurb in no way resembles what it ends up being about.

It opens in a medical clinic where Martin Blom wakes up to people telling him he’s been shot in the head and he is now blind. His neurosurgeon tells him that one of the potential complications is hallucinations as his brain adjusts to its inability to see. Then one evening as he’s wandering through the gardens of the clinic, Martin realises he can see in the dark. He’s completely blind during the day but the darker it gets, the better his eyesight is.

This is where the book’s first problem becomes obvious. The neurosurgeon has told him that he might hallucinate but Martin is convinced that what he’s seeing is real. So the reader is torn between wanting to believe and struggling to. The unreliability of the narrator is a constant concern. And when Martin’s paranoia kicks in and he starts to believe he’s actually part of a high-level experiment, you really don’t know what to think.

When he’s finally released from the clinic, he breaks up with his fiancée to spare her from simply being his carer, briefly moves in with his parents before running away, and then sets himself up in a rundown hotel in the seediest part of town. He sleeps all day and wanders the streets at night, meeting an array of strange characters and seeing many strange things, things that others don’t appear to see. So we scratch our heads. Is this actually happening or is it all in Martin’s head?

About a hundred pages in, Martin meets Nina. And this is where the story actually begins. Because it really doesn’t matter that he’s been shot or that he’s blind. In fact, that element of the story could have been completely left out without detrimentally affecting the plot. Because we never find out why he was shot or whether he is hallucinating or has some limited visual capacity. Instead, his relationship with Nina, their break-up and her sudden disappearance, which brings the police to his door, is the new plot.

The Insult feels a lot like two entirely different books slapped together. And when a new narrator, Nina’s grandmother, takes up the story, we go back four generations and get the entire family history as a long, slow, disturbingly Virginia Andrews explanation for what has happened to her granddaughter. Martin disappears for over a hundred pages and then returns briefly for a horribly unsatisfying ending.

The book is a mishmash of genres and about twice as long as it should have been, which makes sense given that it feels like two different books slapped together. Martin is not at all interesting and it’s almost as if Rupert Thomson has forced him into Nina’s story, although I can’t for the life of me figure out why. He’s a totally unnecessary character in what is ostensibly his own story.

The structure of the book is completely wrong, the story is told from the wrong character’s perspective, there are so many easily eliminated characters and it takes too long to get to the actual plot. There’s conspiracies, mobsters, circus folk, incest, disabilities (both mental and physical) and so many tangents that it ends up being a convoluted mess. It didn’t have to be. You can see the possibilities hiding within it, the potential, which is no doubt how it got published but it’s a good two or three rewrites away from being the book it should have been.

This book clearly demonstrates that Rupert Thomson can write but his plots and his characters are so far beyond implausible that no amount of terrific writing can make up for them.

2 stars

*First published on Goodreads 26 March 2017

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