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Rupert Thomson: The Insult

The setting of The Insult is like Ishiguro‘s The Unconsoled or Adam Lively‘s Sing the Body Electric!, in that the country is sort of a cross between England and some unspecified post-Communist East European country. Thomson’s country is clearly not England – there is a president, for example. The surnames of the characters are sort of Dutch/German though their first names are more generic – Martin, Robert, Karin, Nina. So why are all these Brits rejecting Merrie Olde England?

The book is really two stories combined. The first concerns Martin Blom who, right at the beginning, is shot for reasons neither we nor he ever determine. The result leaves him, apparently, incurably blind. The only other physical effect is that the small part of the back of the head where the bullet penetrates has to be replaced by a small titanium plate. However, after both physical and psychological treatment at a hospital, Blom can see or thinks he can, but only in the dark. But can he see? He is able to identify persons and places in quite some detail, yet, in some cases, his descriptions seem to be wrong. He also sees a whole range of sexual activity going on that no other characters can. Moreover, his doctor warns him that he will imagine he can see things but, in reality, he can not.

The other effects of his (apparent) blindness are to change his lifestyle. He breaks up with his fiancée. After a short stay with his parents, he leaves them too and starts a new life, with new friends, in a somewhat seedy part of the unnamed capital city. He soon starts up a relationship and falls in love with Nina. All the time, he is seeing things that others can or do not – strange and open sexual activity, his doctor hovering around him, a man following him and Nina, his friend and neighbour, doing strange acrobatics. Suddenly, Nina dumps him and then disappears. It turns out he is the last person to have seen her.

The book starts to take a different tack at this point. As he goes looking for Nina, he meets her grandmother and we are immediately plunged into a fairly conventional mystery – how and why Nina disappeared. Nina’s family, as recounted by her grandmother, is not a happy one. All the members of the family either seem to die young or have very unhappy marriages. The cause of Nina’s disappearance is quite simple. It leaves Blom without her but back with his doctor.

The plot of the novel is somewhat awkward and disjointed, jumping as it does from the Blom story to the story of Nina’s family and leaving the Blom story essentially unfinished. What makes the book well worth reading is, in the first part, where we see the world through Blom’s eyes, the eyes of a blind man who can see in the dark but does not see what anyone else sees and, in the second part, where we see the world through the eyes of Nina’s grandmother’s retarded nephew (and, as it turns out, Nina’s father). Both views are, as they are intended to be, disorienting to the reader, – many reviewers called his vision”dark” – leaving us unsure of what is real and what is not. The novel further confirms Thomson as one of the leading British writers.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Bloomsbury