‘The Insult’ by Rupert Thomson tells the story of Martin Blom who is shot in the head in a random attack in a supermarket car park after buying groceries on a Thursday evening. When he wakes up in hospital, he is told that his occipital cortex has been irreparably damaged and he will be completely blind for the rest of his life. However, while his doctors tell him that he is likely to experience hallucinations, Martin believes he has regained his vision but only at night time and he later uses this to search for Nina, his lover who has suddenly gone missing.
In some ways, ‘The Insult’ reminded me of ‘The Unconsoled‘ in that Thomson’s writing is similarly elegant to Kazuo Ishiguro’s and both novels are set in unnamed countries loosely based on central Europe where very strange things happen. I also think fans of ‘Under the Skin‘ by Michel Faber and other similarly surreal literary novels would enjoy it too. Overall, I found ‘The Insult’ much easier to grasp than ‘The Unconsoled’ which was mind-bending in a way that I sometimes struggled with. In other words, whilst reading ‘The Insult’, I was mostly thinking “I want to find out where this this is going” rather than “I’m so confused and this is hurting my brain” and that can only be a good thing.
Martin is told by his neurosurgeon, Bruno Visser, that following the attack, he will firstly feel numb, then depressed and will then eventually accept what has happened to him, developing a new personality in the process. His hallucinations or visions are cleverly ambiguous and become more bizarre as the search for Nina becomes more sinister. However, the change of focus in the second part of the story is extremely abrupt. Although it is eventually revealed that Edith’s grim story of her past is linked to Martin and Nina, I missed reading Martin’s narrative as he is such an engaging character. This was slightly frustrating after such a brilliant start but the increasing disjointedness certainly adds to the unusual atmosphere of the story even though many questions are left unanswered at the end.
‘The Insult’ is truly original and the blurring of lines between surrealism and realism is fascinating. It doesn’t surprise me that it appears on David Bowie’s top 100 list of books and I may investigate more of Thomson’s work in the future.