The title of Tim Parks’s 17th novel is false advertising, because Thomas and Mary: A Love Story is barely a love story, and it’s certainly not about Mary. The intended effect is irony: the dust jacket promises ‘a love story in reverse’, and the opening chapter describes Thomas Paige losing his wedding ring on Blackpool beach during a family holiday.
The next few chapters are reasonably successful. Parks opens little windows on to the Paiges’ dying marriage. ‘Bedtimes’ takes us through a week of evenings, with the Paiges always going to bed at different times. ‘Goat’ explains the nicknames they’ve had for one another over the years, ending with a painful scene in which Thomas asks Mary to stop calling him ‘Goat’.
‘It was our story,’ he accepted. ‘It was fun once. But not now. I’m Thomas and you’re Mary.’
Lists are used frequently, sometimes to good effect — although never so brilliantly as Kundera’s ‘Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words’ in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a superior forebear of Parks’s fragmentary technique.
From the tenth chapter, ‘Black Tie’, onwards, the novel rapidly deteriorates. ‘Black Tie’ is narrated by one of Thomas’s mistresses; the chapter ‘Harry’ is about Thomas’s aging uncle; in ‘Whereof one cannot speak’ we hear from Thomas’s tennis partner; ‘Julie’ is narrated by a dog-walking friend of Mary’s.
This is a small sample, and the idea is admittedly in line with that fragmentary technique — these are supposed to be different angles on Thomas and Mary’s ‘love story’. In practice, the reader spends a frustrating two pages of each short chapter trying to work out who on earth is talking to us. More often than not the character disappears, never to return. Virginia Woolf said of Dickens that he ‘made his books blaze up, not by tightening the plot… but by throwing another handful of people on the fire.’ It’s not a method that works for Parks. Each new character is another dud match, struck in increasing desperation by an author who can’t get the kindling to catch.
The one person we never hear from is Mary herself, which feels like a missed opportunity. Mary’s mind, surely, would be an interesting place to go in a story about, well, Thomas and Mary. Instead, we get the dog-walkers, the tennis partners, even a conversation between Thomas’s dead parents in heaven. At first the chapter ‘Storming the Tower’ seems to be written from Mary’s point of view, but in the closing paragraph, we read:
Thomas stopped. After a long pause he put his pen down. He was getting nowhere. Mary remained a complete enigma. Perhaps you had better stick to your own side of the story, he decided.
The novel sticks increasingly to Thomas’s side, so much so that we end up reading at length about his childhood. These extended flashbacks recycle autobiographical material from Parks’s acclaimed debut, Tongues of Flame, which dealt with his parents’ religious fanaticism. What relevance this has to the story of Thomas and Mary is anyone’s guess. In an interview with the New Yorker, Parks seems unconcerned by such quotidian niceties as narrative structure:
The aim of the book was really to avoid the usual dramatic trajectory that one inevitably finds in novels…. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether it all makes sense.
For this reader at least, the book felt fatally directionless, a long walk through the rain, trudging behind someone who swears the pub is just at the end of the street, just around the corner, down here on the right...