Saturday, August 13, 2011

Dreams of Rivers and Seas


I've just finished Tim Parks' Dreams of Rivers and Seas, which requires readers to keep their wits about them, and try and pick up and sort through the innumerable clues, themes, metaphors and other links that permeate the book. It's a mystery of sorts, but that's not its prime focus.

It's not been my favourite read of all time, although Parks is an interesting writer; this is probably only the third of his books I've read. (Interestingly enough, he cribs a scene out of his non-fiction book Teach Us to Sit Still, and revamps it for one of the few amusing scenes in this book. It occurs when the American writer visits the Indian husband/wife medical couple.)

It concerns a dysfunctional family: the father, Albert James, is a scientist who's wandered off into some almost completely abstract research that seems to go nowhere (his books are annotated with elliptical sentences that no one can understand, and his lectures aren't much better); the mother, Helen, is a woman doctor seemingly dedicated to helping the poor, but she's also manipulative, remote and regards her deceased husband (he's just died at the beginning of the book) as something of a saint. She is so interwoven with her husband that no one else seems to matter to her. These two live in Delhi, one of the many impoverished places they've settled in over the years.

Their son John, (also a scientist) is in his early twenties, and a bit of a puzzle: naive, immature and desperate to connect with his parents, yet somehow unable to. He has seldom lived with his parents because of their lifestyle, and we discover late in the book that his real father may actually be someone else altogether.

There are two other major characters: the son's girlfriend - also immature, a wannabe-actress, and caught up in her view of herself as something of a rebel - and a forty-something American who wants to write a biography of the father. These five (even though the father is dead his 'ghost' constantly infects and affects the story) intertwine and disconnect and crash into each other in a myriad number of ways, along with a host of other characters. This being Delhi, there are people everywhere.

While the story is about words, and language, and meaning, it's also about family, and what people can do to each other, and how they can destroy each other. It's about selfishness - the father, in spite of being regarded as something of a saint by several of the characters, is perhaps the most selfish of all; the mother exudes it, in spite of her work with the poor. It's also about the fathers (and to a lesser extent, mothers), and the rebellion against them that many people go through, and in some cases, never overcome. The young man begins the story desperate to 'know' his father; by the time the book is finished he has reached a point of hating him (the ending is somewhat ambiguous, so I may be reading this wrongly). Parks brought this theme into Teach Us to Sit Still as well; his anger at his father was possibly one of the reasons why he was continually having what was initially diagnosed as prostate problems - in this newer book, the father has supposedly died of prostate cancer. In fact, the more I think about it, the more links there are between the two books; but that's not uncommon in a writer.

Parks is an excellent writer, and Delhi is portrayed in all its glory and awfulness; the characters are strongly written, and often extremely annoying (!), and in spite of its rather grim atmosphere, it draws you along at a cracking pace.


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