Harvill Secker, £16.99. Order for £15.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Server, By Tim Parks
Beth Marriot is a volunteer at the Dasgupta Institute, a Buddhist retreat set deep in the English countryside. She's been here – preparing the rice and beans, cleaning the loos, getting up at four to meditate – for nine months, an unusually long time for a server given that most parents "don't put you through school to have you spend your life cooking and cleaning for free".
But something happened to Beth that made her abandon her family, friends, lovers and her bandmates, and the drink, drugs and sex that accompanied them, to seek refuge in a life of silence and simplicity in an environment that keeps men and women strictly separated.
"Sex is forbidden at the Dasgupta Institute", we are told in the very first sentence of this novel, and accordingly it hangs heavily over the sexless pages that follow. Beth's self-imposed internment clearly has its roots in her previous inability to curb her rapacious sexual appetite. Indeed, it grows somewhat dull being reminded how attractive she is, and ultimately how out-of-place she is in this haven of innocence. I'm tempted to find fault with this potentially misogynistic depiction of female sexuality – the woman who overindulges must pay the consequences – but actually it's Beth herself who irks me more.
I struggled to feel any sympathy for a character whose selfishness was matched only by her vacuousness. Yes, she has made some mistakes in her past (although most seem nothing out of the ordinary), and yes, she did play her part in a terrible tragedy. This is where I expected some sense of palpable regret to come to the surface – but despite months of meditation, Tim Parks's heroine remains as self-involved as ever. As the story of her past is slowly pieced together, I found myself distinctly uninterested.
To read The Server as the self-confessed "companion novel" to Teach Us to Sit Still, his acclaimed memoir of how he transformed his life of chronic pain and illness through the use of meditation, probably makes more sense. Yet ultimately the vicissitudes of Western individualism and Eastern quietism are more suited to a piece of provocative spiritual philosophy than as the basis of a page-turning plot.
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