Dreams of Rivers and Seas by Tim Parks

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Dreams of Rivers and Seas by Tim Parks

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: When John is abruptly notified of his father's death, he goes to Delhi to comfort his mother – who clearly is not seeking comfort. Meanwhile a hopeful writer has plans to write a biography the family do not wish to see. Present lives become entangled as the past unravels. The whole is set against the teeming backdrop of modern India, which is portrayed as vast and strange, but not necessarily exotic or romantic.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099513360

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John James is a research student based in London, working on ways to attack (or prevent) TB at the molecular level. This is the only way science can be done these days he insists. The sum of knowledge is too great for any one individual to understand. Teamwork and specialism is all.

He is in love, he thinks, maybe, with Elaine an aspiring actress. They are, obviously, penniless, reliant on the allowance from his parents.

Then his mother, Helen, phones from Delhi. Your father died this morning. And he finds himself on the first available flight, for a funeral to take place the day following his arrival.

And he finds his mother as self-contained as ever. She continues her work at the clinic. The cremation ceremony she has organised is minimal, not to say abrupt. Clearly she feels her son has no part to play in whatever grieving she may or may not need to do.

As they leave the crematorium, the family and few friends are accosted by an American journalist. Paul Rogers wants to write a biography of John's father, Albert James: an allegedly brilliant anthropologist, who appears to have achieved little real success beyond the realms of eccentric academia.

Helen will have nothing to do with the project, but whether her reasons are to do with the uncertain circumstances of her husband's death, or because of what might be found out about his life are unclear. Why would she not allow her son to see his father's body, for instance? Why instead of allowing him to accompany her to scatter the ashes, is he sent on a pointless excursion to more famous tombs?

Back in London, John receives a letter his father wrote just a few days before he died. A strange letter in which he speaks of being plagued, perhaps blessed, by dreams of rivers and seas. The letter is strange enough to tear John away from his lover, away from his work and back to Delhi… but not, specifically, back to his mother.

Thus begins a tale of the unravelling of family truths and untruths. Albert and Helen's story is that of the perfect marriage that sustained them through lives in the remotest, most dangerous places on earth. John's is the story of the isolated (unwanted?) child who neither bound his parents together nor drove them apart, but rather appears to have been a total insignificance in their lives.

Sidelines include the relationships that both Helen and Albert had with their own families… a Sikh friend's daughter running away from the prospect of a marriage… actress Elaine's own rebellion against parents who feel she should have a proper job. All of it revolving around people who have eschewed convention to make their own way in the world… as though we cannot do so within conventions.

Meanwhile, Helen becomes ever more involved with the journalist. Insisting that she does not want the book to be written, she clings to its putative writer, perhaps as one final link to her late husband, one last recognition that he really was as good as she thought. Or maybe for different reasons entirely.

Delhi is more than a backdrop for this totally engrossing novel; it is almost a character in its own right. This modern portrait of India shows a place clutching tenaciously to its conventions and traditions whilst, seemingly, nevertheless to live inside, outside and around them. Perhaps it has always been a strange place for free-thinking westerners to seek clarity and identity – but now even more so as the young Indians themselves are as confused and wilful as adolescents anywhere. The sights and sounds and smells of the capital don't so much assault the senses through Parks' writing as seep through them…permeating slowly.

At its centre Dreams… is a mystery story. It is a question of what happened and why and he manages to maintain suspense by never totally delineating the relationships between the characters. We are given clues and left to surmise… and as often happens in life, the suppositions made within families and close-knit circles are scarcely ever the correct ones.

The book has a kind of elegance that is hard to define. It flows easily, whilst being deceptively simple. There are passages that try to blind with science when talking of Albert's work – but grasp that these are intentionally obtuse (or is the word abstruse?) and they are easy to skip over. Understanding them is not remotely necessary. The remainder is driven by the interactions of worldly characters all of whom are searching for something.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you want to delve further into tales set on the subcontinent try The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux or for something a little less forgiving we can offer you Animal's People by Indra Sinha.

Buy Dreams of Rivers and Seas by Tim Parks at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dreams of Rivers and Seas by Tim Parks at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Dreams of Rivers and Seas by Tim Parks at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dreams of Rivers and Seas by Tim Parks at Amazon.com.


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