The name “Orwell” doesn’t appear until the penultimate page, in a postscript, of Burma Sahib, the new novel by Paul Theroux about the young Eric Blair, who went on to make “George Orwell” famous as his pseudonym. Before that, in 1922, 19-year-old Blair needed a job. He had just finished his student days at Eton, where he was not outstanding enough to matriculate to Oxford or Cambridge. He decided to follow the example of his father, uproot himself from England, and work in the British colonies, spending most of his early adulthood as an imperial policeman in Burma. Through the lens of historical fiction, Theroux proposes to explain how Blair became Orwell.

In the opening scene of this perceptive book, as he stands at the bow rail of a steamship that has just passed through the Suez Canal on its way to Rangor, Blair is under surveillance—not by Big Brother, but rather by a matchmaking mother who is husband-hunting for her daughter. Blair and the daughter turn out to be a poor couple, but the passage, with its sly reference to 1984, is an early sign of the depth and design of Burma Sahib.

Novels don’t need thesis statements, but Theroux offers one in his epigraph: “There is a short period in everyone’s life when his character is fixed forever.” The sentence is drawn from Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days (1934),

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