Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Water Theatre

Litlove's interesting and generous proposal to set up a blog aggregator for book-related blogs led me to look back into how often I write here about what I'm reading - would I qualify, even for one of her proposed 'mixed content' categories? Well, no - I found to my surprise that I hardly ever write about books. Before the recent piece on All Souls, it had been months. I read so much, I really I had the impression that I did this much more often! So I thought I might try to post a book review every week. No idea if I'll prove capable of this or have anything to say worth reading, but anyway, here's the first one.

The Water Theatre is a new novel by Lindsay Clarke, a name I'd known for many years, along with that of his 1989 Whitbread Prize-winning work, The Chymical Wedding, which I'd inexplicably never read. It's a shame I didn't read him twenty years ago because he writes the kind of thing I've always enjoyed very much, but perhaps now enjoy less.

The Water Theatre is a long, romantic, first-person fantasy with depth and intelligence. It flows between two narratives, one set in the present of a burnt out, aging journalist back from conflict and disaster in Africa and the other in his past as a clever working-class 18-year-old in an industrial town of northern England, the dramatic surrounding countryside and grand, shabby country home of his friend from a middle-class, left-wing intellectual family. The story of the past is founded in place (Lindsay Clarke grew up in Halifax, Yorkshire, in the period described), in the social history of 1960s England and the wider history of decolonisation. It weaves a convincing, moving web of characters and relationships against an equally convincing backdrop. The story of the present is consciously more schematic, contrived to spin off into myth and symbol, as the friends of long ago meet up again in a fairy-tale Umbrian landscape and the jaded journalist is led on a strange, ritual journey into his past and into the underground tunnels of the water theatre, an ancient grotto in the grounds of an Italian contessa's country house. Here is ancient folk myth and Jungian symbology, as he crawls through the terrifying tunnel of his own damaged psyche and emerges to resolution in a more hopeful place.

I often find novels that switch between two narratives difficult and unengaging, but this is very well done. It's a lovely, deep and complex novel, imbued with Lindsay Clarke's vast knowledge of ancient myth and Jungian psychology and invoking myth and fantasy not in isolation, but as the deep, dark heart of personal and political history.  This is the kind of tale you need to be enchanted by, utterly sucked up by, suspending disbelief even while seeing it for the parable it is and absorbing the wider meaning. It beguiled me, but ultimately not quite enough. I can't ignore the fact that these days I tend to find myself less sucked up - enough to keep me reading, but not enough to make it an entirely satisfying experience. It's kind of like sex without love - not necessarily less compulsive, but somehow less meaningful.

However, this is an unusual, absorbing, blessedly unfashionable and finely written book, with a significant and heartful project of re-grounding a life of our times in enduring imagery and values.  If it was worth the effort for a tired out, choked out mind like mine, it's certanly worth it for more moderate and less sated readers.


Lucy said...

Funny, I had the impression you wrote about books more often too, perhaps because you write about other things you've read? I always value your reviews a lot, they always feel generous and trustworthy, somehow.

I remember 'The Chymical Wedding' coming out, I was selling books then and it was rather recommended as a bookseller's kind of book, understated and intelligent, but for some reason I didn't read it either, perhaps because there were no free copies to be had!

I don't know if it's a question of being sated or jaded, perhaps your priorities just change...

litlove said...

Hurray! Both for more book reviews from you and for this one specifically. I really enjoyed Lindsay Clarke's The Chymical Wedding, which I read, ouf, twenty years ago or so. I'm delighted to see he's written something new and I'll have to try it. I know what you mean about books being less gripping on the whole. I wonder why that is? More critical faculties on our part, perhaps?

Jean said...

I don't think my priorities, or interests, or even my standards have changed that much. I think perhaps it's just the sheer number of novels I've consumed in the past fifty years. Not surprising, really, that that should make some difference.