BOOK REVIEW / Lava on a shimmering island: 'Shear' - Tim Parks: Heinemann, 13.99

TIM PARKS specialises in psychological extremes: suburbia torn apart by religious fanaticism (Tongues of Flame), a schizophrenic disturbing the settled currents of family life (Family Planning). When social or political satire was added to these nerve- jangling emotional crises, the effect was often startlingly good. In Goodness (1991), which featured a zealous proto-Thatcherite attempting to deal with the problem of a handicapped child, Parks produced a novel which bears comparison with many a more modish assault on Eighties zeitgeist. George Crawley, a fool possessed of an almost Thackerayan conviction of his own rectitude, might not have been John Self or Keith Talent, but at least he was a recognisable human

being.

Despite its saturation in geological jargon and its Mediterranean setting, Shear follows this well-trodden path, for all that its central character seems far too sharp an operator to allow himself to be pushed towards any sort of emotional breaking-point. In fact Parks's hero, a fortysomething geologist and apparent satyromaniac named Peter Nicholson, is a man of conspicuous detachment: in thrall to his profession from an early age, 'he had loved to depersonalise, to find himself and all his actions in the materials whose name he bore'.

Fetched up on a shimmering Greek island with Margaret, his 22-year-old mistress, and booked to inspect a quarry on behalf of an Australian building concern in dispute with its contractors, Nicholson anticipates a routine working holiday.

Almost from the outset, however - and the novel covers a bare five days in Peter Nicholson's life - the personal and the professional intersect. An Australian woman, Mrs Owen, whose husband was killed by a falling slab back at the hotel development in Sydney, tries to enlist his help in the search for reparation. Thea, his glamorous and complaisant interpreter, turns out to be the daughter of the local satrap. Meanwhile, the news from London is that his wife is pregnant and prepared to abort unless treated with a little more consideration, and that the Australian client, mysteriously, would like 'a really damning report'.

These are pressing dilemmas, even to a man of Nicholson's outward coldness. A message that the Australians and the quarry owners have settled out of court - thereby rendering the geologist's report redundant - seems to provide a convenient escape route. But by this time Mrs Owen has disappeared, leaving her seven-year-old daughter in his charge, Nicholson's hotel room has been turned over (presumably in a search for the incriminating slab, which was lent to him by the widow) and the scent of collusion between client and contractor hangs in the air. Nudged by Margaret's prompting and undeterred by the threat of blackmail over some compromising holiday snaps, Nicholson sets out to confirm his suspicions.

Tightly plotted and with all the pace and stripped-down dynamism of a superior thriller, Shear luxuriates in the grasp of geological metaphor, a thraldom which Parks cheerfully acknowledges: his prefatory note descants on the notion that a novel's genesis 'is not unlike the way some rocks form'. Cue a great many fancy analogies about heat, lava and fragments from vast explosions, with female skin-tone routinely described as 'white to pink, perhaps potassium- aluminium silicate'.

While you can admire Parks's determination to establish a coherent architecture, it is hard to believe that these technicalities really sharpen our perception of the object described. They might tell us something about the way in which Nicholson sees, but very little about what he is looking at. Elsewhere, the tagging of domestic turmoil with phrases from the textbooks - 'Erosion of an old uplift. Much the same might be said of his marriage' - sags towards the banal.

These metaphorical tics are a pity, as for the most part Parks stays in control of his material. With its nods in the direction of Greek mythology and the lurking sense of manipulation, Shear occasionally seems a shade too reminiscent of John Fowles's The Magus. However, its set-pieces: the tense denouement, a striking passage in which Nicholson pursues a figure which he imagines to be Mrs Owen along a crowded beach ('a blemish, a wedge of shadow in the painful colour and light') are memorably done and the overall effect never less than impressive. Sadly, though, it seems a safe bet to predict that much more ink in this autumn's books pages will be expended on many a less deserving book.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate