Adam Mars-Jones

  • Mother Land by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 509 pp, £20.00, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 14498 5

Big families are rare now in the West – even Catholic countries in Europe aren’t exactly prolific, though Ireland holds out against the trend – but even when they were commoner in life they didn’t loom large in fiction. Literature isn’t a branch of sociology, and drama favours a stage without too much human clutter. Veronica, the narrator of Anne Enright’s The Gathering, somewhere in the middle of a tribe of 12 (seventh from the top, fifth from the bottom), suggests there’s a certain uniformity about the large family: ‘There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister.’ That isn’t quite the set-up in Paul Theroux’s very disconcerting new novel, Mother Land. There are two success stories among the seven surviving Justus siblings (one died in infancy), neither colossal, and operating in adjacent areas of cultural activity: the poet and literature professor Floyd, and Jay, a novelist and travel writer with forty-plus books to his name (matching Theroux’s own tally), who narrates.

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