Tim Parks: latest novel is dense and unsettling

Dreams of Rivers and Seas

By Tim Parks

Vintage, €23.60, 431pp

Albert, a brilliant anthropologist celebrated for his exploration of the interplay of individual sensibilities and their social contexts, has died in Delhi. His widow, Helen, who had dedicated herself to healthcare in India, summons their only son John, a PhD candidate in his 20s, to attend his father's cremation.

Rather than share his mother's mourning, he is expected to visit shrines and monuments which are a tourist's nightmare. The cacophony of devotional music and the prattle of guides assail him; at the Taj, he is only vaguely aware of the symmetry and beauty of the legendary monument.

For John, India is, and will remain, a place of dead animals and live vermin, stinking lavatories and riotous bowels; and, occasionally, seductively predatory young women who attempt to lure him to him to their beds or persuade him to take them back to London.

In another part of the city, in Tim Parks' novel, Helen is attempting to deal with her experiences; neither her marriage nor her husband's death is quite what it seems. Helen's own attitude to life and death is complex, even cavalier, as is her relationship to her sexual needs.

There is an importunate intrusion into her grief when Paul, a brash young American biographer, pursues her for information about the subject of his next book: Albert. Helen, who refuses to collaborate, is drawn to his louche sexuality. The sexual and intellectual games of blind­man's buff she plays with him form a major part of the novel's many intersecting patterns.

John's quest for his lost father is another one of these patterns. He returns to London to find a question mark hanging over his own passionate relationship with a young actress, who may be sleeping with her Japanese director.

His visit to his nouveau riche grandmother in search of a handout, ostensibly to continue his research, gives Parks an occasion for a brilliant, cruel set piece, with the materialistic woman clutching at her grandson like a gin-soaked banshee. In possession of funds, John returns to India to unravel the web (and webs, along with rivers and seas, are an integral part of the novel's imagery) of his father's life and suspicious death.

Back in Delhi, he fails to connect with his mother but finds, instead, a Sikh nymphet who claims to have had a relationship with his father, and who perhaps caused his death. Helen fails to resolve her own dilemmas about the loss of her partner, and chooses a dramatic way out of her quandary without ever reconnecting with her son. But his remorseful girlfriend has come to rescue John from his increasingly hallucinatory existence.

In a novel that has more converging plotlines (and random sexual encounters) than a testosterone-fuelled thriller, there is also a vein of melodrama and pure romance that leads, circuitously, to its double conclusion of tragedy and reconciliation. John may have matured: it isn't, however, India that changes him as much as his dogged attempt to find his dead father.

At times overlong and overloaded with details of the more unpleasant aspects of the Indian landscape, Dreams of Rivers and Seas is nevertheless shot through with images of nature and science that take us to a realm of speculative imagination which the figure of Alfred, the absent apex of many overlapping triangles, evokes.

This dense, unsettling novel combines the findings of social science and the tropes of popular fiction in its elaborate and asymmetrical construction.