Dreams of Rivers and Seas by Tim Parks

02/08/08, The Times

There is an interestingly charged lacuna at the heart of Tim Parks’s fourteenth novel, Dreams of Rivers and Seas: the character whose life, thought and intellect provide the scaffolding and cohesive force of the story, a famous anthropologist called Albert James, is absent throughout the book. In fact, the novel opens with his son, John, receiving the news of his sudden death in Delhi and flying out for the funeral. This absence proves to be an enormously powerful presence, more than Albert James alive would have provided, for all the novel’s characters, both central and marginal, expend the book’s entire length reconstructing and remembering him, reacting to him, reading him, talking to his imagined presence, drawn by his sheer, mysterious magnetism.

There is Helen James, his wife, who works as a doctor in a free clinic in Delhi and who seems bemused by her son’s clearly unwelcome presence at his father’s funeral. Then there is Paul, the womanising American biographer who is intent on writing Albert’s biography and wants his widow to authorise it. Helen plays a protracted push-and-pull game with him, at times giving the project the green light, at others, absolutely forbidding it. Finally, there’s John, the biology PhD student, who is baffled by the pieces about his father’s life and death that don’t quite fit. After he returns to London from his father’s funeral, he is so plagued by dreams, unanswered questions, financial worries, his problematic relationship with his chilly and distant mother, and the first signs of trouble with Elaine, his pretty, actress girlfriend, that he flies out to India to find out what happened to his father.

While in Delhi, he meets Jasmeet, a young girl who alleges that Albert may have been romantically involved with her during the last few months of his life. Jasmeet gives John his father’s computer, containing all the e-mails between the older man and the girl. Meanwhile, as Paul becomes Helen’s lover, he slowly learns about Albert and Helen’s pasts and starts uncovering the truth about their marriage, a marriage both consuming and liberating to husband and wife, and one that didn’t have space for anyone else in it, not even for their son. John, lost in Delhi and facing physical and mental near-meltdown, gears himself up for a final confrontation with his mother, something that will be denied him.

Through all this emerges the slippery, elusive, highly original mental world of Albert James himself. These are easily the most fiercely intelligent sections of this gripping and ambiguous novel. Inspired by the work and life of Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist who had an enormous influence on the world of communication theory, systems theory and cybernetics, Albert James’s pursuit of the pattern that underlies and unifies everything is also inseparable from his deep desire to sidestep and escape any system, any attempt at totalisation. And once again, India provides the gritty, realistic backdrop, a lightning conductor even, for intelligent Westerners to play out the manufactured anguishes of their fissile lives.