But the novel, loose and baggy as it is, is the sturdiest of vehicles and can support all manner of stresses and strains. The story picks up around Page 340 as Boyle sends Ray on assignment north, into the Kalahari Desert, to check up on Kerekang, who has established a kind of rural commune and who, for sound agrarian reasons of his own, has started attacking remote cattle stations and blowing up boreholes.
Things begin to move relatively fast. Ray is captured by a group of mercenaries who have crossed the border from Namibia. He is tortured and imprisoned. During his incarceration at an abandoned luxury game lodge, he is joined — astonishingly — in his cell by Morel, also captured by the mercenaries, having been sent north by Iris to search for the missing Ray. The game lodge is then attacked by Kerekang’s men, and a sustained firefight ensues. In the crisis Ray seems to turn a little insane but in his insanity behaves with foolhardy heroism and saves the day. They flee into the desert with Kerekang and his men. Ray and Morel have long conversations about Iris. Morel confesses that he and Iris are having an affair, says he loves her and that Ray has to come to terms with the fact that his marriage is over. They both proceed forlornly home to Gaborone and Iris.
In a way the novel is now effectively over too, narratively speaking, and here it ties up with a subtheme that is alluded to both in the book’s title and in Ray’s abiding love for Milton’s great epic. Ray Finch, at the opening of the novel, was a man in paradise: He loved and was loved in return. But this was not to be, and Ray returns to a postlapsarian world, after his ordeal in the desert, in which this affirming, all-important, life-enhancing fact is no longer the case. He has to envisage an existence without this vital buttress, this foundation that gives his life its fundamental meaning.
And I think this essential human problem — this human crux — lying at the core of this hugely complex, deeply intelligent, engagingly garrulous, frustratingly meandering story is what gives this sprawling novel its clear integrity. Ray is a modern Adam: He has lost his innocence and is condemned to live on, unloved in a sinful world. His dilemma is ours also, and is universal and timeless. “We are all dying animals” is how Davis Morel summarizes the human condition at one point. And the way we cope with that pitiless fact is this novel’s deep and abiding concern.
All is not lost, however: Rush seems keen to hold back from the ultimate bleak conclusion. Ray decides to seek out Kerekang (who has now moved on to South Africa), and Iris accompanies him on a final journey to Johannesburg. En route, in a mountainous picnic stop, they indulge in a final, truly earthmoving fuck before parting. The novel ends with Ray teaching at a rural school founded by Kerekang. Iris is still with Morel in Gaborone — though not living with him — and is anxious to see Ray once more. Some hope is hinted to us that in the future the love between Ray and Iris may be renewed. Paradise Lost, yes, but there is also the possibility of Milton’s sequel: Paradise Regained.
William Boyd is the author of several novels, includingA Good Man in Africa, Brazzaville Beach and the recentAny Human Heart: The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart. He lives in London and France.