Dreams of Rivers and Seas
A central image in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India is the echo experienced in the Marabar Caves. The acoustics of these spaces turn any noise made within their walls into the same sound: ‘boum’.
Tim Parks’s 2008 novel, Dreams of Rivers and Seas, owes a debt to Forster’s 1924 book. In simplistic terms there are similarities: a group of displaced Westerners experiencing the distinctive dynamics of India find unexpected answers to questions about their own lives.
However, the connection between the two novels is more thematic. For, just as Forster’s work deals with communication – specifically, the impossibility of conveying absolute meaning with absolute clarity, so Parks examines how fraught with difficulty and confusion all human communication is.
The lodestone of Parks’s novel is the anthropologist Albert James, whose work on communications theory is, it seems, both esoteric and fascinating to all those who come into contact with it. His death in Delhi brings his son to India for his funeral. James’s widow, Helen, is taciturn about her husband’s death – at times infuriatingly so. The only person she seems willing to open up to is Albert James’s would-be biographer, Paul Roberts.
Helen James’s interactions with these two living men, and the mystery around her interaction with her dead husband, provide the key attraction of the novel. Self-contradictory and inconsistent, she seems to push away those who she should bring close and draw in those she should keep at a distance. She does this while working as a doctor in a charity clinic – pursuing this role with a decisiveness and clarity of vision that is at complete odds both with the ambiguity of her husband’s life-work and that of her own personal behaviour.
Superficially it seems that Helen is playing out Parks’s central idea and her husband’s confused and confusing theories. However, like all the best novelists, Parks is not satisfied with thematic puppetry. Helen’s behaviour and the contradictory signals she sends stem from a place of deep pain.
It would be a shame to reveal the exact nature of this pain to the would-be reader of Dreams of Rivers and Seas. Suffice to say the reason for Helen’s abstruseness is every bit as shocking as the Adela Quested incident in a Passage to India. And the profundity of the denouement it leads to harks back to the deification of Miss Moore into ‘Esmiss Esmoor’ in Forster’s book, and to that homogenizing echo in the Marabar Caves.
By West Camel