Sex is Forbidden by Tim Parks

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Sex is Forbidden by Tim Parks

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Set in a Buddhist retreat, this first person narrative manages to be introspective without being self-absorbed. Often funny, this is an intelligent and thoughtful look at meditation and self-forgiveness.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 278 Date: May 2013
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099565895

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Tim Parks's Sex is Forbidden is narrated by twenty-something, Beth. She's working as a volunteer server at a Buddhist retreat called the Dasgupta Institute where she has been for the last nine months although the book covers one ten day cycle of retreat. The Dasgupta Institute imposes bans on attendees, although the conditions are slightly less onerous on the servers who, nevertheless are expected to join in the meditations. There's no talking, no writing, no mingling of the sexes and no physical or even eye contact. One day Beth, still a rebel at heart, wanders into the men's side where she discoverers an attendee is keeping a diary where he is contemplating his moment of crisis and she is hooked. The revealing of the past that has driven both Beth and the mysterious diary keeper to such an austere retreat is part of the intrigue of the book, but while there is an inevitable focus on introspection and new age thinking, Beth's tone is delightfully sceptical and feels very authentic. It's almost impossible not to feel for her plight and to admire her approach.

The hardback version of this book was published with the title The Server and I must confess that I rather regret the, presumably commercially driven, decision to move to a more titillating title. Similarly too, this is one of those books that proves the adage not to judge a book by its cover as both the paperback and indeed the hardback have gone for different pretty girls in alluring poses. Both are lovely photographs but are hardly representative of the tone of the book. That said, at least one element of Beth's past involved multiple sexual partners of both genders but her issues are far deeper than lust driven urges.

It's certainly not a book with a driving plot line, but as often with books that are set in a clearly defined environment over a set period, it is entirely engrossing and the character of Beth is absolutely perfectly portrayed. The issues of her resolving her past are an element of the book, but it's also a broader look at Buddhist thinking. While in general Parks seems to suggest that it has much to offer, neither Beth nor the diarist are uncritical of the thinking and often gently send up aspects of the set up. There is a wonderful irony in that while the message of the course is about constant change and things never staying the same, the content of the courses are always identical and the attendees watch the pre-recorded DVD of the Dasgupta giving an unchanging message time and again to everyone.

Novels where the narrator is involved in introspection can become somewhat self-indulgent, but Parks cleverly avoids this. Partly this is helped by Beth's character but also her role as a server - which is why I still think that's a better title for the book. Beth's own battle with her past is touching and believable. Some of this is achieved with the benefit of the Buddhist teachings but much also despite them. The result is a book that is both often funny but also deep at the same time. Parks slowly reveals Beth's past and while she is clearly suffering, she never resorts to self-pity unlike the man with the diary.

It may not be a book for everyone, but if you have even a slight interest in meditation and Buddhist teachings, and don't require your reading to be plot driven, then this is an excellent, thoughtful and intelligent book.

Out grateful thanks to the kind people at Vintage for sending us this book.

For more self-reflection, Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman is equally fine although perhaps a less uplifting read.

Buy Sex is Forbidden by Tim Parks at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sex is Forbidden by Tim Parks at

Buy Sex is Forbidden by Tim Parks at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sex is Forbidden by Tim Parks at


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