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.

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