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A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a west London cafe eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table. An enraged young Italian woman was giving her mother grief over shaking crockery, switching her barrage between her mother tongue and English assertions. "Cazzo! Are you saying that class comes down to genes?" (Beleaguered mum rolls her eyes to the ceiling.) "What? Dad has never pressured you about these things?" (Sigh.) "Merda! OK, OK, maledire. Fine, let's all carry on being so happy and not talk about it and I'll make my own decisions!" A screech of chairs and she's out the door, leaving the older lady shuffling after her, embarrassed and footing the bill.
I tell this story because at the time it occurred I was deep into Tim Parks' backlist in preparation for his new novel, Rapids. Smirking behind my espresso I recognised in the incident a theme running through most of his work: the conflict between Italians' surface formality and their compulsive antagonism. To say nothing of the English fascination with such contrary national traits - as illustrated by my rubber necking. As Parks wrote in his essay collection, Adultery and Other Diversions: "We live in Italy. It's a country where people divorce significantly less than in the Anglo-Saxon world, but perhaps have more affairs." He cracks open that veneer of propriety like frost on a vegetable patch.
Parks has created such a niche in the publishing market that it's impossible to imagine him producing a book that's not preoccupied with his adopted country. And yet he always uses Italy as a launch pad for new literary ventures. There have been psycho-thrillers (Cara Massimina, Mimi's Ghost), travelogues (Italian Neighbours, A Season with Verona) and existential dramas (Destiny and the Man Booker-nominated Europa). Rapids is no exception. It's a tenacious addition to the mini-genre of white-water thrill rides, joining the likes of Deliverance and Lisa Michaels' chronicle of 1920s canyon rafting, Grand Ambition.
A party of English canoeists arrives at a campsite on the banks of the Aurino in the South Tyrol for a week of downstream mayhem. There is Vince, the recently widowed head of an international bank, and his 15-year-old daughter, Louise; Keith and Mandy, the group's organisers; Adam, the anally retentive instructor; Clive, an ageing eco-warrior who runs the site, and Michela, his tormented younger Italian girlfriend. And then there are Tom, Max, Amelia, Mark and Brian: a gaggle of snake-hipped, loose-lipped adolescents who throw the troubled, listless adults into sharp relief. On the first night they all sit around for a bit of tell-us-about-yourselves bonding. It's blatant exposition straight out of a screenwriting workshop but it clearly shows that the bunch are about as united as a bottom in a baggy wetsuit. Having an anti-globalisation protester and a big-shot banker heading into the churning water together was never going be a smooth trip. And that's before sexual politics envelopes the bunch and allegiances start shifting.
Parks' use of Vince as the current around which the story flows is a neat authorial touch. He's a finely wrought, complicated character who is well out of his depth both emotionally and physically. The kind of man who has been coasting through life, who hasn't "had a hangover for over a decade". Alienated from both his daughter and the memory of his wife, he takes to his kayak with an urgent need for regeneration. "How different from the financial institution," he acknowledges. "From the discreet units of measure to be added and subtracted, the mind racing but the body only a burden in its frustrated inertia." How this one ordinary man adapts to an environment where insurance becomes redundant is the heart of this fine book.
The river provides scenes of gut-gripping intensity. But there is a risk for writers who make the move towards a brand of storytelling in which physical actions are as significant as intellectual reflection. Remember the sniffy reaction to Martin Amis's hard-boiled effort, Night Train? And yet, with Rapids, Parks is continuing in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy and Laurie Lee: examining a world where decorum disintegrates, dark undercurrents are exposed and bodies splutter into life. Or, to put it in the context of Tim Parks' oeuvre, it has echoes of Verdi in its Tyrolean terrors.
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