They say one should never judge a book by its cover, and this is certainly true of Timothy Mark's
"Chusan", the cover of which led me to expect a kind of updated "Far Pavilions". Instead, I got the eccentric but entertaining
story of a young English clergyman who doubles as an MI5 agent in southern India. The cover in fact reflects the period in
which the novel is set: the early nineteen sixties, a time of great political unrest which the author witnessed at first hand.
Perhaps this is why "Chusan" sometimes comes across as a work of non-fiction, even including the occasional explanatory footnote.
Mr Mark is not embarrassed to admit that this is his first novel. Some of the tell-tale signs
are there: "It was a cold, damp, misty, wintry December evening in 1958," I read with a degree of foreboding. The style, though
comfortable and (apart from the dialogue) never stilted, betrays an innocence of technique which lightens the dramatic and
emotional impact the story might otherwise have, so that at times it almost slips into pastiche - which I do not think
is what is intended. The habit of stating the obvious, tedious in the introductory chapters, is gradually abandoned (or perhaps
I ceased to notice it), but the odd solecism continues to distract. The placing of characters' thoughts inside quotation marks,
for example, is a peculiar touch.
For all these little foibles, the action moves along at a good pace, with few if any inconsistencies
of plot, as the Reverend James Mortimer boards the Chusan, a P&O liner bound for India. Unknown to him, there are other
passengers aboard whose paths will cross his, in perilous conditions, before he is ready to make the return voyage. Seldom
is the outcome predictable, though at times the gullibility and short-sightedness of the leading characters, including the
calm and capable hero, take one's breath away. All is not what it seems, however, and the reader is kept guessing right up
to the final chapter. There is topical interest, too; one of the aims of Mortimer's mission is to put a timely end to the
nuclear arms race between India and her near neighbours.
Male authors often "get it wrong" when trying to assume a female point of view, so our heroine,
Felicity, a feisty writer of women's social history who just happens to be the daughter of the British Deputy High Commissioner,
comes as a pleasant surprise. (By contrast, the brief portrait of Commander Baker's childlike and devoted wife is positively
sickening.) If only the minor male characters had more depth, and did not spend so much of their time commenting on the physical
attributes of the females, who, regardless of skin colour, invariably boast remarkable figures. Yet there is subtlety in the
portrayal of Felicity's relationship with the Tamil rebel, Jayaprakash, who regards her as politically naïve and emotionally
expendable, whilst himself remaining unaware of the extent to which he represents, for her, a social experiment. The sexual
tension between them is overlaid by their separate but mutual consciousness of racial distinctions, whether physical, cultural,
or more intangible. It is a difficult subject to write about, and one which the author tackles confidently.
Timothy Mark's writing is at its best when setting the scenes - the bustling city of Madras
and its environs, as viewed through a foreigner's eyes. It is when he turns to subjects further from his personal experience
that he is inclined to slip up: Sellafield was not the name in use in 1958. Quibbles aside, there is much to admire in this
rather tenderly-drawn picture of a land he has known and loved. My instincts tell me that this will not be the best novel
he ever produces.
ISBN 0 9538366 0 6 Published by TJM Publications, 2000
379pp, paperback Retail price £9.95
Review by Deborah Fisher
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