Click here to read reviewer Norma J. Shattuck's take on A Dead Hand or here for Sandie Kirkland's review.
Theroux has written a dark tale of middle-aged seduction, child exploitation and betrayal. In Calcutta, travel writer Jerry Delhunt has a “dead hand” - writer’s block. He has no inspiration to write, no thoughts to put on a page. So when he receives a letter on fine stationery written in lush purple ink, the disillusioned writer is at first “amused by its presumption.”
In the missive, a wealthy, idiosyncratic woman, Merrill Unger, requests his assistance as a fellow American in India. It seems that her son’s friend, Rajat, has been telling a strange tale of late: he woke in a shabby Calcutta hotel to find the body of a dead child in his room. Fearful that he would be accused in the death, Rajat fled the scene. Now Mrs. Unger is hoping Delhunt can uses his connections in the city to learn more about the incident and whether it really happened.
In a country where forty-four thousand children go missing every year, the life of one child hardly seems significant. But when Delhunt meets the stunning and beautiful Mrs. Unger, he falls helplessly under her spell. Not only is she exotic and well-traveled, with business in Calcutta. She has also established a safe place for homeless children much in the vein of Sister Theresa, but decrying the publicity and public funding that the nun so enjoyed.
Hoping to please this enigmatic creature, Delhunt begins a casual investigation into Rajat’s claims about the hotel and the missing child, falling deeper into his enchantment, especially after Mrs. Unger introduces the writer to tantric sex. Happy for the distraction from his failings, Delhunt now believes that he has been “pretending to be a writer when I was only indulging myself as a tourist.” Mrs. Unger offers freedom from his self-excoriation, a fugue in which Delhunt drifts from one erotic meeting to another with the object of his obsession.
Better that Delhunt remember that “India has a market economy…there are no suitors, only customers.” For every natural death, a thousand unremarked atrocities occur. Delhunt’s obsession with Mrs. Unger leads him to pursue the mystery behind the child’s death, a path that leads to uncomfortable answers and the likelihood of betrayal, his foolish romantic notions wound up with Mrs. Unger’s worship of the goddess Kali and the practice of tantric sex, the writer willfully oblivious.
Theroux perfectly captures this frustrated writer’s ennui and vulnerability to the sophisticated woman, Calcutta teeming with the disadvantaged and the desperate, mobs of beggars that frighten Mrs. Unger: “I always think they want to devour me.” A strange, dark tale of obsession, betrayal and exploitation, Theroux’s protagonist swims upstream until he is washed ashore, the truth obscured by his unexpected passion, the goddess Kali insatiable.