Sugar and spice
Renegade or Halo2
Timothy Mo Paddleless Press, 478pp, £17.99
Near the start of Timothy Mo's new novel, the narrator - Rey Archimedes Blondel Castro, aka Sugar, an illegitimate half-American, half-Filipino "nigger" - says: "I was just too weird a mouthful . . . I guess I made the shortlist a lot more interesting but I was never gonna make the final cut." Rey is referring to his failure to be admitted to the priesthood, but his words could easily be construed as an authorial aside. Mo, too, has invited excommunication, from the literary world, by publishing his last two books himself. Certainly his solo voyage under the Paddleless Press imprint has drawn a few vultures to the banks of what is assumed to be shit creek. To cap it all, he has abandoned London after 20 years, in favour of his native Hong Kong. Mo, however, like his latest protagonist, doesn't simply resist the racial, social and professional undertow, he seems positively to relish the challenge of doing so. And if a novelist can sink or swim by nothing more than the quality of his fiction then, on the most recent evidence, this is one buoyant writer.
Renegade or Halo2 (an apt, if off-putting, title) is a multicultural, multi-layered display of imaginative effervescence - literally and metaphorically a mixed-race confection. Halo2, pronounced "hallow-hallow", is a dessert made of incompatible ingredients that prove surprisingly delicious in combination. Rey is both renegade and halo2: born to a Filipina bar-girl by way of a US serviceman, his size and blackness set him apart from his childhood fellows. Taken in, educated and then rejected by the Jesuits, he signs up as a law student, only to flee into exile after being framed for murder. That is about as much plot as you get. From here on, Rey's story is a quixotic, globe-trotting sequence of adventures. The narrative departing from chapter six is the Philippines-to-Philippines shuttle, calling at Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Middle East, Bombay, Plaistow, Cuba and Florida.
The chain of events that transports Rey from place to place is well constructed, although the sound of credulity being strained is audible on a couple of occasions. I found the London section less engaging than the rest, a victim of the city's familiarity amid so much exotica, and the diversion to India is indulgent even within the rambling framework of the picaresque. Nevertheless this is one of those richly entertaining narratives that sweeps a lenient reader along on the momentum of its energy. There are formal and thematic parallels with Salman Rushdie, but Mo is less boastful of his erudition and less densely inaccessible. Like Rushdie, he is preoccupied with the displaced. The novel is peopled with refugees, outcasts, racial hallow-hallows, legal and illegal immigrants, Gastarbeiter, boat people . . . the hotch-potch of humanity that makes up the marginal population of most postcolonial cities.
Mo is an ideal chaperone in this landscape of interlocking prejudices, a world he knows at first hand and has exploited fruitfully in his fiction. This is in every sense an international novel, by a writer brimming with confidence. In Rey Castro he has fashioned a hero at once unique and archetypal. An outsider even in his own country, a perpetual misfit, a victim of racism who somehow survives within the armour of his own sense of identity. His tale could make you depressed about the common language of interracial animosity. That it doesn't is due to the upbeat tone that suffuses the writing and to the narrator's irrepressible optimism. Mo, like his creation, may be something of a "weird mouthful", but the sourness and sweetness of non-conformity do not appear to have left him embittered.