By Margaret Drabble.

New York: Penguin Books, 1991. ISBN# 0-14-016719-6

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2000

Stephen Cox, writer, goes to Cambodia for reasons that he's not to sure. It is 1985 and Stephen is in search of the remainders of Pol Pot's army. He dies in this endeavor. Liz Headleand, friend of Stephen has received a box of materials of Stephen's, mysteriously sent from Cambodia. Eventually, in following up this mystery Liz goes to Thailand, searching for Stephen and discovers evidence of his death.

The story, some 463 pages of it, wanders back and forth between England (home of Stephen and Liz) and Thailand/Cambodia as we follow first Stephen's travels, then Liz's.

It is a curious book. I was drawn to it, couldn't put it down, yet it aggravated me to no end. There really wasn't much of a story. I gave the bare bones of it above. The first hundred or more pages kept tempting me that I was into a novel that was going to reveal Cambodia to me and elucidate the mysterious Pol Pot. Nothing of the sort occurred. It was about Stephen, Liz and their friends and acquaintances, the very upper crust of London society.

By the time I was well over a third into the book and rather hooked on the struggles of Stephen in Cambodia and Liz's hunt for him (the two stories, from different time periods, were intermingled), I had begun to get very annoyed with Margaret Drabble for yet another failing -- purple prose. She has a tendency to go on and on, sometimes several pages, with short tales that do nothing to serious advance the main story, but which seem to exist simply for their own sakes, chances to slip into this novel slightly related short tales with almost poetic writing. The very poetry of them made them stand out in their irrelevance to the main plot.

In the end Drabble hooked me. I cared about Liz Headleand and Stephen Cox and even their circle of rich and odd friends. I forgave the lost opportunity for her to have written a book about Pol Pot's Cambodia, and I tolerated the purple prose interruptions, though not without due aggravation.

A rather strange book! I don't know that I would recommend it to anyone else, yet I'm not at all sorry I read it.

I'm quite surprised I read this book to the end!

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett