BOOK REVIEW / Lava on a shimmering island: 'Shear' - Tim Parks: Heinemann, 13.99
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.
Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 UK weather: Snow to fall in the coming week with sub-zero temperatures to last until early February
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
- 4 Phil Neville backtracks on Tomas Rosicky 'I'd smash him' comments from Match of the Day 2
- 5 British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Mr Selfridge series 3: Actress Kara Tointon says 'we're starting to see his demise'
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after Wembley Stadium rant
Benedict Cumberbatch says Hollywood is better for black British actors
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
Taylor Swift banned from Triple J Hottest 100: Fans react to epic #Tay4Hottest100 defeat
Nigel Farage: NHS might have to be replaced by private health insurance
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
George Galloway condemns 'racist, Islamophobic, hypocritical rag' Charlie Hebdo at freedom of speech rally
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks