Rapids: a novel by Tim Parks

Current affairs in a river of life
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The Independent Culture

The river as a metaphor for life is hardly an original one. With its still surface and threatening undertows, its fluidity and evanescence, its rapids and hazards, no analogy has ever possessed such utility for expressing the process and the mystery of being. It takes a truly outstanding writer to take such a well-worn device and make it fresh and urgent. Fortunately, Tim Parks is such a writer, and Rapids is a thrilling white-water ride, not only through the landscape of the Italian Alps, but also through the quirks and eddies of the human heart.

Parks starts with a simple, but promising premise. Six adults and nine adolescents come together on a white-water "community experience", on a swelling, glacier-fed river. Some are intimates, some are strangers, some acquaintances.

The group leaders, Clive and Michaela, are political idealists and estranged lovers, and the emotional tensions that pervade their relationship seep down into the group and transform an innocent pleasure trip into something darker, and eventually, chilling.

The other central player among the well-drawn cast of characters is Vince, a middle-aged banker whose wife - an accomplished kayaker herself - has died. He comes with his teenage daughter, Louise, whom he feels pulling away from him in the wake of their bereavement. Vince's carefully ordered and responsible life suddenly feels fragile and empty. Somehow he hopes the white-water trip may bring some coherence. More than any other character, he is seeking re-invention, and a conquering of his own fears. But the resolution of this quest comes in a way he can never have anticipated.

Parks sets himself a difficult task. Handling 15 characters within such an enclosed sphere is a challenge; making that large cast both convincing and engrossing is highly tricky. Also, translating such a visual and visceral experience as white-water kayaking into language is a hurdle, and sometimes I felt that to bring knowledge of water terminology - "white holes", lines, pour-overs and suchlike - to the book would be a real advantage.

But, on the whole, Parks overcomes these difficulties deftly and skilfully. Even when you can't quite work out what's going on, or who's who, a sense of excitement at the action charges the text, and you are pulled remorselessly into the heart of the narrative.

This being Tim Parks, Rapids is far, far more than an adventure novel, but also a brilliant unfolding of personalities, secret intentions, thwarted ambitions and petty vanities. The teenagers are indulging in other rites of passage than simply risk-taking on the river, as they cast about for sexual adventure.

Clive's idealism is challenged by the cynical Adam. Michaela is desperately trying to keep her faith in Clive, and she starts to seek conquests in retribution. Most of the adults, one way or another, are adrift, while the teenagers are somehow more resilient, or oblivious to the powerful forces tugging at their lives.

Rapids manages to be not only a social and psychological but a political novel. Parks even-handedly examines the gap between action and ideology, as the waters swell around them as a result of the global warming that is melting the glacier. Disaster threatens the kayakers, and the globe: they, and we, deny the truth about ourselves and the world at our peril.

Rapids would not be out of place on the Whitbread and the Booker shortlists. Immensely readable and deeply intelligent, it confirms Tim Parks as one of our foremost authors, one whose depth of talent continues to refresh and shock and, finally, like the water itself, scour and purify.

Tim Lott's new novel, 'The Seymour Tapes', will be published by Viking in May

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