Marcel Theroux is the son of a travelling writing behemoth (Paul), and older brother of TV’s dissembling clown (Louis). He has said in the past he’d like to be known in his own right. I’ve probably given him exactly the kind of introduction he hates, so I feel a bit guilty, since the book is very good. Here are some of the things it’s about (proportions are approximate):
Daisy is a middle-class journalist whose life implodes when her husband is murdered in a moment of arbitrary, unprovoked violence. Despite this act of extremely anti-social behaviour, the unrepentant 17-year-old offender escapes serious punishment due to his age. Then, in one of those uncanny coincidences that allow so many stories to exist, the fates of widow and widow-maker converge again through the latter’s new and promising career in the noble art.
At this point, we enter an unusual and compelling tale of revenge; Daisy attempts to reach her nemesis by immersing herself in the world of East End boxing, with its shabby gyms of exposed brickwork, threadbare punch-bags and fighters of varying degrees of mediocrity.
The text is beautifully sparse; as wiry, lean and dextrous as Isaac, the prodigious young deaf boxer who Daisy champions, hoping to use him as a tool for her vengeance. Isaac’s innocence of Daisy’s agenda, forces us to ask whether the premeditated, deceit of a grieving – but grown – woman, is perhaps a greater crime than the mindless brutality of the teenager who widowed her.
This is only one of the tensions in this clever, taut narrative, which doesn’t so much twist, as curve gracefully around very sharp corners. These convolutions often come at the hands of Ron Costello, a Machiavellian fight promoter, who is the novel’s “Mr. Big”. Costello is no cliché though. Rather than the product of a violent, criminal upbringing, he’s the spoiled son of a successful East End tailor, who gave his son an expensive public school education (perhaps Theroux recalls a childhood tormentor from boarding at Westminster). Ron’s psychotic cruelty is not born of the dark world he inhabits, but purely of his own ego and vanity.
Theroux peppers his dense plot with some unexpected digressions; the strangest of these is an episode of parricide; the most amusing, a meeting between Costello and some naïve BBC producers; the most irritating, a conversation about black men’s penises between Daisy and a vapid friend. But for the most part it’s a knotted, claustrophobic universe, where everyone has crossed swords (or gloves) in the past, and is heading for another damaging bout.
While the climax sees Theroux yielding to the “final big fight” convention of classic boxing dramas, it is not a fight between underdog and favourite, or good verses bad. There is no possibility of victory – only sacrifice – and the chance of a life merely damaged, rather than destroyed by violence.