With Dreams of Rivers and Seas, Tim Parks takes his novelistic gaze away from decadent Europe and brings us a story of overseas visitors in India. Fortunately, it’s one that’s far more nuanced and complex than Paul Theroux’s recent The Elephanta Suite.
The central -- though absent -- presence here is that of Albert James, a discipline-crossing anthropologist, loosely based on Gregory Bateson. Albert dies of prostate cancer while in New Delhi and, following a phone call from his wife, Helen, their son John arrives from London for the funeral. Also in the mix is journalist Paul Roberts, long-time admirer of Albert, who hopes to persuade Helen to assent to his plan of writing a biography of her late husband. The pas de troix that now ensues is complicated a while later with the arrival of John’s girlfriend, Elaine.
The plot arises organically out of John’s tortured thoughts, Helen’s helpless bravado and Paul’s self-serving curiosity. Parks has a keen eye for Delhi’s crowds, traffic and chaos, efficiently delineating his characters’ complex responses to them. He spins a spider’s web of ideas to do with the commonalities and differences in the ways which we interact and, as such, the novel also deals with more modern modes of communication such as text messages and e-mail.
Grace, despair, patterns of relationships, the inability to recognise one’s ambitions and the strength to endure are what fill these pages. Dreams of Rivers and Seas is at times dense, at times unnecessarily drawn out, at times unnerving – and always absorbing.
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