An Insular Possession Essay - Critical Essays

Timothy Mo

Critical Context

An Insular Possession, Mo’s third novel, broadens the scope of his previous work, rendering the multifaceted world through a collage of forms, but maintains the essentially comic perception of divergent characters and cultures at odds with each other, the ramifications of a British Empire spread too far. Like his second novel, the critically successful Sour Sweet (1982), it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, firmly establishing Mo as a major British Commonwealth novelist.

Like the modern British novelists of the first half of the twentieth century, Mo implicitly condemns the British exploits of the Victorian period. Born of rampant egotism, Great Britain’s colonization depended on breaking the will of foreign nations and eventually dissipated the strength of the mother country herself, making it, in retrospect, difficult to justify. Yet Mo consistently steers clear of pontifical accusations himself; drawing his social commentary from sardonically etched characters in fundamentally improbable circumstances, he conceives this historical era as a grand, if somewhat regrettable, farce. To this end, he chooses the postmodern path of viewing the past from a contemporary perspective. As in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), Mo’s narrator has the benefit of hindsight. As it does for other novelists in the postmodern movement, the mollifying distance of time provides Mo new solutions to the problem of resurrecting a culture from the ashes of an empire.