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

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea