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Updated: October 5, 2013 20:19 IST

Gone baby gone

ANURAG TAGAT
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Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday.
Special Arrangement Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday.

A dark novel that attempts to mix religion, horror and mystery, with bursts of political satire.

Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2007) was a best-selling political satire, but he has since moved on to unfamiliar, often unexplainable, territory. Unexplainable because there’s the conspicuous presence of the unreliable narrator in Torday’s half-supernatural half-religious horror/thriller Light Shining in the Forest.

Set in the modern day, the novel continues with Torday’s jibes at public officials. An important character is Norman Stokoe, a civil servant who has no assigned role or duty after a change in power. Until a wannabe local news hack, Willie Craig, comes along. They make an odd couple, but are joined by Stokoe’s secretary Pippa Everbury, whom Willie promptly falls for. Torday is torn between romance, suspense and horror.

The main premise of Light Shining… is the disappearance of children, emphasising the estimate of a child going missing every five minutes in the U.K. Torday explores child abduction, abuse and broken homes by bizarrely blurring the lines between the religious and the supernatural. After three children go missing, signs point toward Gabriel Merkin/George Mitchell, a mobile book librarian who may or may not be a serial killer/freak taxidermy enthusiast under the Witness Protection Programme. Torday does make a hero out of Stokoe, but does it through the brazen Geordie Nixon, a frustrated, pill-popping lumber harvester who loses his stepson Theo and then wrecks his marriage. By the time Nixon hunts down Theo’s killer, readers are left with a mix of disgust, confusion and shock. There are hints toward Theo being the second coming of Christ, with stigmata and his mother’s name being Mary. The Christian angle carries on, with serial killer Merkin attempting to recreate The Last Supper through taxidermy and Norman’s government position being referred to as the “Angel of the North.”

Torday’s mix of religion and horror is only partially successful. There’s a fair bit of graphic descriptions to make one weak at the knees and stomachs churn when Merkin learns how to embalm a corpse. The author becomes a realist by the end, throwing in bureaucracy and corruption to show how the case is covered up to avoid embarrassing the police and the country’s secretary of state.

I have only one grouse and that’s about the length. The descriptions of the geography and history of Northumberland and Northeast U.K. are unnecessary.

Light Shining in the Forest; Paul Torday, Hachette India, Rs.695.

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