Reviewing Lindsay Clarke’s Whitbread-winning The Chymical Wedding a small matter of 20 years ago, and noting its free and easy cast and wistful nods in the direction of the Age of Aquarius, I eventually pronounced that it was a ‘hippy novel’.
Reviewing Lindsay Clarke’s Whitbread-winning The Chymical Wedding a small matter of 20 years ago, and noting its free and easy cast and wistful nods in the direction of the Age of Aquarius, I eventually pronounced that it was a ‘hippy novel’. Slight anxiety when Lindsay Clarke then appeared on the bill at a literary festival I was attending — authors, you may be surprised to learn, don’t always care for these off-the-cuff judgments — was quickly dispelled. No doubt about it, Mr Clarke affably deposed, ‘hippy’ was exactly the right word.
Oh well, I thought to myself, a third of the way into The Water Theatre, an altogether ominous narrative rife with intimations of family fracture and post-colonial trauma, not much sign of the beautiful people here. In fact this was a hopeless misjudgment, for while outwardly concerned with such subjects as emotional score-settling and the horrors of modern Africa, the novel turns out to be as full of mysticism, sex, spiritual quests and vagrant petals tossed wantonly upon the stream of life as an Incredible String Band album from the summer of 1967.
We first find Martin Crowther, Clarke’s veteran war-reporting hero, on his way to Umbria sometime in what I take to be the 1990s. His task, carried out at considerable personal cost (there are cross and ultimately discontinued phone calls from a feisty American girlfriend) is to appease a dying man, long estranged from his children and ripe for reconciliation. Stroke-felled Hal Brigstock is revealed as a left-wing ideologue from the era of the Winds of Change, who by dint of his friendship with its first president, contrived to midwife the birth of the fledgling African state of ‘Equatoria’. No-nonsense daughter Marina is Martin’s former love; son Adam his erstwhile best friend. Lurking in the background is the memory of a self-destroying mother, and the thought that two-thirds of the surviving Brigstocks regard Martin as a conniving betrayer.
Whereupon, though gamely interspersed with some nicely drawn sketches of Martin’s ground-down West Yorkshire childhood and his early visits to the Brigstocks’ farmhouse high on the snow-bound moors, everything reverts to type. Mazily sequestered in the Umbrian countryside, Martin discovers a kind of Shakespearian fantasy land, peopled by, among others, a lute-playing Fransciscan friar, an enigmatic, stage-managing contessa, a prattling old college chum named Larry Stromberg and his two childhood friends (Marina blind, Adam distinctly odd), all of them gravely absorbed by the teatro d’ acqua of the title, in whose ‘House of the Dead’ Martin is ordered to immerse himself as a means of reaching closure with his late father.
The ‘betrayal’, when finally exposed, is one of those terrible moral cul-de-sacs in which the victim, by trying to protect one friend, ends up alienating everyone else in the equation. Its solution allows a redemptive note to sound out above what has previously been grinding emotional chaos. Long, densely written, parading its seriousness in a manner scarcely seen since the great days of Iris Murdoch, full of the highest hi-falutin chat, The Water Theatre is a staunchly old-fashioned piece of work, which perhaps explains its publication by the firm of Alma Books, rather than Clarke’s former sponsors, messrs Jonathan Cape. It is also, despite occasional longueurs, a very good one, and deserves the widest possible audience.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.