Strange Bodies is a frustratingly brilliant book. Marcel Theroux is an author that you might either love or hate. This is all a football match; a game of two halves. The first half of the novel will appeal to literary minded fans of intrigue, while the second will appeal more to fans of supernatural and occult science. Where this reviewer stands is still open to debate.
The prologue tells of how a shop owner experiences a visit from Nicky Slopen, an old boyfriend from University. Problem is, Nicky died a while back. He knows things only he could know, but it can’t be him. Can it? Not long after, he turns up in her flat and while deception can be the only obvious motivation, he sticks to his story. A surprising early twist changes the nature of the novel. The main body of the novel is a first person narrative from Nicky, as he is holed up in a secure unit of a notorious psychiatric hospital, interspersed with notes from the doctors treating him. Nicky tries to explain why he thinks he is who he is, by explaining his life before he was sectioned. He was separated from his wife and misses his kids. He was a famous academic who studied Samuel Johnson. He was mixed up with rich music manager, Hunter, who collected historical literature.
Through all this, he comes into contact with some Russians, including savant Jack and his sister, Vera. He soon finds himself caring for Jack and way out of his dept. And so begins the second half of the novel, where Strange Bodies becomes almost Victorian science fiction, examining the very nature of life. Up to the point when the reader, and Nicky, finds out what is really going on, Theroux’s fifth novel, reads like a literary mystery. If you don’t know your literary history, especially around the time of Johnson, you might find it a struggle. Certainly, you might need a dictionary. I found it a bit like wading through delicious, intriguing treacle. I wasn’t sure, however, that the payoff would be worth it. The second half of the novel is an easier read and more fun. Yet it is still an intelligent investigation of life and desire and identity.
What is admirable about Strange Bodies is that the mystery is revealed both the reader and the protagonist at the same time, but yet you’re still not convinced by Nicky’s story. It almost feels like a version of the unreliable narrator trope. And yet, despite the higher aim of Theroux’s prose, you want to go with it. You care about Nicky’s story, whether or not he is just a mad man in an asylum who is making it all up; whether the events of the story are real, but he is simply delusional; or whether everything he is portraying really happened. There are clues and hints to which is real, but it’s not written in stone.
Marcel Theroux is a master of the English language. His imagination is wonderful. It turns out that Strange Bodies is an old-fashioned story told in a highly original way. The motivations are very human and the themes are timeless. If you are interested in a modern classic that investigates humanity and self, and you have an interest in historical literature, this is the book for you.