Tim Parks: Dreams of Rivers and Seas

Just as literary Penelopes confuse me, so too have I a tendency to mix up my Tims. Tim Pears, Tim Parks, Tim Binding, all conflate in my mind as a nonspecific white, middle-aged English novelist of no particular interest – so far. Tim Parks is the most prolific, having published 23 books in the last 23 years. On further searching (of memory and internet), I see that I have read one of his novels: Destiny (1999), which might have more accurately have been named Density, as I recall it as pretty challenging and cannot say now whether I even finished it. Now Dreams of Rivers and Seas is his fourth novel in five years, and it was only high praise in the newspapers, including from Indra Sinha, that made me feel I’d better give him another go.

I’m glad I did, as this is a extraordinary and unusual novel. The cover indicates the Indian setting, but almost all the characters are Westerners, away from home, travelling, seeking. Looming over every page is the social anthropologist Albert James: but he doesn’t even appear in the book.

On reception of his mother’s brief telephone call announcing his father’s death, John James took a deep breath, booked himself onto the first available flight for Delhi, had Elaine drive him to Heathrow, travelled towards the coming night and arrived at Indira Gandhi Airport to find the weather much cooler than expected.

You want an opening sentence that really kick-starts a novel? That’s the way to do it. It’s all there: the emotional distance which John’s mother Helen keeps (the weather really is cooler than expected), John’s taking for granted of his girlfriend Elaine, and the central question of what was on Albert James’s mind in his last days, as he travelled towards the coming night. He wrote a letter to his son a few days before his death:

Dear John, for some time now I have been plagued, perhaps blessed, with dreams of rivers and seas, dreams of water.

The letter that follows is gnomic, enigmatic – typical James, as we learn. As Helen is working in clinics to fight disease in a conventional way (a displacement activity, we suspect, and anyway, “a drop in the ocean … the Third World is a bottomless pit,” one friend observes), Albert is engaging in more curious pursuits with his students.

‘He asked us to draw the weather,’ one girl said.

‘To draw the weather?’

‘And invent new insects,’ said another.

‘Mr James liked to apply very experimental methods,’ Sister Nirmala agreed.

‘Then we had to think of ways to change the world to suit the new insect we had drawn.’

‘Or the new weather we invented.’

His pronouncements too have their ambiguity. John’s girlfriend Elaine observes, reading one of his books, that it was as if James “had something tremendously important to say and then wrote the whole book to make sure no one ever found out what it was.”

Everyone is trying to find out what it was that James had to say, not just at the time of his death, but in his work. His widow Helen is pursued by an American writer, Paul Roberts, who wants to be James’s biographer. “His ultimate goal,” Roberts believes, “was to find a new state of mind, or pattern of behaviour, that would provide the departure point for a solution to many contemporary crises: political, environmental and existential.” John wants to know how his father died, and the reader’s thirst for that is slaked midway through the book. But James remains no less obscure. John’s mind, in trying to follow and understand his father, becomes “a pitching sea, a river that had burst its banks,” and a posthumous disappointment to the man who insisted that understanding can only come “with a clear and clinical mind … with sterilised gloves in sterilised spaces.”

“Nobody understood the messages people communicated like Albert, and the thousand ways every message can be misunderstood.” This is the heart of the book, and of the family: John, as a child, “lived in the knowledge that other families were integrated in the world in a way that the Jameses were not.” The book is all communication, and about the things we learn, and the things we never learn, from conversations, letters, emails, text messages. John’s communication, and lack of it, is crucial to understanding the effect his father and mother have had on him.

Dreams of Rivers and Seas moves into a dramatic gear toward the end, which breaks the spell after the cerebral and ‘talky’ feel of the rest, but probably injects necessary pace and direction toward a conclusion. Amid the ideas, the crossed relationships, the family mysteries and the intimations of all-too-human impropriety in the man whose “greatest ambition was to be a ghost … to be present and not present,” we are reminded by his widow why this knotty read is also so compelling.

No one wants a book about someone who was entirely good.


  1. This certainly sounds like a good one, John. It’s been on my pile for a while, and it’s just shifted up a few spaces…

    Are you planning to try any of his other books now? Or maybe revisit Densit… Destiny? (I’m wary already – Destiny is by far the most common title on the manuscripts I see.)

    Incidentally, I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who has the problem with the Tims. It doesn’t help that their surnames begin with P, P, and B.

  2. Tim Parks is a tremendous writer, much of his work is now out of print sadly (or was last time I looked anyway, it’s why I lost touch with him rather).

    Tongues of Flame, Goodness and Loving Roger are all excellent (that last a whydunnit, Tim Parks dabbles in the margins of crime on occasion). Those are all early works, so likely less accomplished than his later novels, but still well worth visiting for all that.

    He wrote two rather Ripley-esque novels, Cara Massimina and Mimi’s Ghost both of which are fun but a bit on the slight side, and of course he has written some excellent non-fiction on contemporary Italy which I strongly recommend, for all they sounds a bit Sunday supplementish on the back blurbs.

    I have to admit, I rather lost touch with his work after Goodness, which from a brief viewing of his website this morning suggests to me I may have missed his best and most mature work. It sounds like I should revisit him, he’s a remarkably talented writer.

  3. Well Rob, following Max’s comment, I think I just might investigate further. His recent titles (ie the other three novels he’s published in the last five years) are Judge Savage, Cleaver and Rapids, all of which are still available. I’m tempted by the first of these, which he speaks about (amongst other things) in an interview here.

    Thanks for the guidance Max – and welcome back to the blogosphere! All the titles you list are as you say out of print as they’re his earlier ones. As well as the non-fiction which you rightly raise, he’s also a translator and did a recent Penguin edition of Vitaliano Brancati’s Il Bell’Antonio.

  4. Thanks John, I’ve been in Madrid the past month without much internet access, so I’m just catching up a bit and updating my own blog of course (though little I read on holiday bar a truly excellent Spanish history book will be of interest to you I fear, mostly SF and thrillery stuff while out there though more by chance than intent).

    Still, I’m currently reading The Gift of Rain, after which I may give Roth a go based on your and Trevor’s recommendations (Trevor’s enthusiasm for Roth is very contagious).

    Wonderful first two chapters in The Gift of Rain by the way, it’s shaping up to be a marvellous read. I know you’ve previously written it up, but I want to avoid reading that particularly closely until I’ve read it myself.

    And thanks for the Brancati info, I wasn’t at all aware of that and shall now check it out.

  5. though little I read on holiday … will be of interest to you I fear, mostly SF and thrillery stuff

    Don’t be so sure: didn’t it include Ian McDonald’s River of Gods? I must admit my interest in McDonald – I keep looking at his books but have never bought or read one – is mainly because he’s among that tiny band of nationally published writers who lives near me!

  6. Hm, I hope Dan Brown never moves next door to you John.

    River of Gods is excellent, though on the SFnal front I still consider Crumey the better writer, but then SF is as much about the ideas (if not more) than it is anything else and as an SF work I rate River of Gods very highly.

    That said, I link in my comments to a review at Eve’s Alexandria, and that review contains excerpts from the text (something I criminally omitted to do on this occasion), which are worth taking a look at to see how you take to his prose style.

  7. As well as the non-fiction which you rightly raise, he’s also a translator and did a recent Penguin edition of Vitaliano Brancati’s Il Bell’Antonio.

    I’ve just looked at my copy and he only provided the introduction. The translation is credited to Patrick Creagh.

  8. I’ve been following the career of Tim Parks from the beginning. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart (head?) for humorous novelists, and he’s always had this humorous streak in his writing. It sounds like he may be moving away from humor as his primary focus. I read all his early novels, and not too long ago I read his novel about a canoeing vacation in Italy that was extremely well done. Can’t remember the name of that book. The title of this new book, “Dreams of Rivers and Seas” seems uncharacteristically vague for a Tim Parks novel, but I’m willing to take your word that it is good.

  9. It is Tony, and I’m certainly surprised that his earlier work was humorous, as there’s certainly not much evidence of that in this book. Could the canoeing vacation one be Rapids?

    Stewart, I stand corrected. Thanks!

    Also I see that Parks has a website of his own, which he appears to maintain himself. Gives a little info on the impetus for writing each book.

  10. I recently finished reading this and really enjoyed it, certainly more so than “Judge Savage” but perhaps not as much as “Cleaver” which I thought superb. As for there not being much humour in this one, well, maybe I lean toward the infantile, but I thought the scene with the ingenious use of underpants in an Indian toilet was one of the funniest things I’ve read in a novel all year!

  11. Sorry Isabel, you’re right.

    I don’t think John was estranged from his father as such (though they did live in different countries) – except insofar as everyone was estranged from Albert James. But it’s clear that John’s impetuousness, emotional dependence, and other dubious qualities derive from his upbringing with his family – even though we learn little of the details of that. I’m pleased about that though, as I’d rather infer the background for myself rather than have it dealt out in flashbacks.

    And I don’t think James treated his family differently – certainly as we discover during the book (it would constitute a spoiler to say more), he and his widow Helen were intimately close. James did however have an unusual family background himself, which was based – as was his work – on the anthropologist Gregory Bateson. (Though he makes clear that the other details of James’s later life are not based on him.)

    Parks on his website says that one of the questions in mind when he was writing the book was, “How far is it ever possible really to understand something and then act decisively to change it?” That seems to have been James’s mission.

  12. Well, I’m rather late to the party, John, but I just wanted to add that this book strikes me as typically intelligent, enthralling and well-crafted and reinforces my feeling that Parks is one of the most unjustly neglected writers around. I’ve followed him since the beginning, with a mixture of admiration and envy, partly because we both used to do the same job in Italy (I still do) and was publishing while I was still struggling to find someone ready to take me on, partly because he has one of the most acute takes on Italy I’ve ever come across and partly because he has written the best novel about Italian academic injustice (Europa) until I get around to writing mine! I was deeply impressed here by the sense of place he’s managed to create and I’ve got enormous respect for his ambition and range. So where are the prizes?

  13. Thanks for a very timely comment, Charles. I was sitting here wondering what to read next and your comment has moved me to bring Dreams of Rivers and Seas off the shelf. If the author of Little Monsters and The Scent of Cinnamon (both of which I thoroughly enjoyed) likes the book, that is recommendation enough for me.

  14. Charles, by coincidence I picked up Europa when I was away recently, wanting to read more Parks (but my local bookstore doesn’t have any). I read the first couple of pages and it seemed very funny.

  15. Really depressing aimless and sad read. I would rate this as one of his worst books. In my opinion if he is neglected, its really good for the readers. Such writers should be under a different category where readers are paid to read such material. Maybe I am a general reader. I am someone for whom time is at a premium and I read for unwinding, this book really frustrated the hell out of me. Besides just writing flair and command over language isnt there something about a book being engrossing??? I am so frustrated with it, that I have actually searched through google and gone ramming it all across…because it was a painful read.

    1. Sorry to hear you didn’t like it, Jeeves. It’s actually the only one of his novels I’ve read. Which of his books do you rate more highly? The only other one I’ve read was his recent memoir of sorts, Teach Us To Sit Still, which I thought was very good.

  16. Have you read much Parks since this John? Looking back I see I really liked him. I suspect I still would, though for me he’s in the category of writers such as Julian Barnes whom I can enjoy but perhaps no longer love as once I did.

    The reason why is funnily enough touched on in Jeeves’ comment. In recent years I’ve come to the view that no, books need not be engrossing. The best books often demand effort, require us to reach to them and wade into them to get out what they have to give.

    I still of course greatly enjoy engrossing books. Who doesn’t? But it’s not a requirement for a book to be good by any means.

  17. No, I haven’t, Max – just Teach Us To Sit Still as mentioned above. I do have his earlier novel Europa on my shelves, which I will no doubt get to sometime before I die. Possibly.

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