The Water Theatre, By Lindsay Clarke

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The Independent Culture

Given the thin gruel that passes for writing in so many novels, it is a rare pleasure and surprise to read a new book whose prose is so rich and emotionally resonant. The next surprise is the ambitious depth and range of the plot. There is a further surprise in the ending that may not be as welcome.

The Water Theatre opens with sicty-something war reporter Martin Crowther caught in a thunderstorm in Umbria. Haunted by the ghost of his dead father and by nightmares of the atrocities he sas witnessed recently in Africa, he is on an errand into the past. His friend and mentor, Hal Brigshaw, once a charismatic giant, physically and intellectually, but now a very old man, has begged Martin to go to Italy and to persuade his estranged children, Marina and Adam, to return and see him before he dies.

It is in a way a fool's errand. And Martin is something of a holy fool, a good man who through his sense of honour and conflicting loyalties has himself been rejected by Brigshaw's son and daughter.

In a skilful intervening of past and present, we are taken back to Martin's 1950s working-class home in the gloomy basement of Cripplegate Chambers, its rooms inhabited by solicitors and other middle-class professionals. His mother is the cleaner there. His father is a stoker in the town, closely modelled on Halifax.

Martin escapes to the different world of High Sugden, a large old house on the moors to which he is invited by his friend, Adam. Here, at the hands of the Brigshaw family, he receives a not-so sentimental education. Marina toys with him, Adam is oddly distant and preoccupied, Hal teaches him left-wing politics, and Hal's wife, eventually, seduces him.

Martin's friendship with Adam disintegrates over the years, his love for Marina comes to grief, and his admiration for their radical father is destroyed by evidence of Hal's vanity and ruthlessness.

Lindsay Clarke has an enviable command of character, time, and place. He is almost Lawrentian in his ability to depict both the power and beauty of landscape, and tender or tragically fraught emotional relationships. He handles the lives of Crowther and the Brigshaws masterfully over almost half a century, and it is only in the last quarter of the novel that doubts begin to creep in as to its direction.

In Umbria, having met Adam and Marina at last, Martin realises they are involved in some mysterious ritual that appears by turns sinister and ludicrous. Adam insists that Martin take part in the play-acting at a palatial villa. This is the only condition on which they will return to England.

The fantastic journey that Martin undertakes through candle-lit grottoes, a Lethean boat journey on an underground river, and a terrifying crawl along a utterly dark tunnel to the chamber where he is abandoned, is brilliantly achieved and totally absorbing. But the mystical manner ofMartin'd final reckoning with his ghosts, and a reconciliation with the past, may be hard for some to take. It would be wrong, however, to end on a carping note. This is a significant and ambitious work by a master of his craft.