Books Magazine, October, 1987
By Hilary Mantel
Tim Parks’s third novel is prefaced, of course, by the appropriate bit of Browning – ‘Oh to be in England..’ Next comes the apercu of an anonymous ‘O’ Level student: ‘why didn’t he go home then?’ Good question.
There are lots of reasons for travelling, and one is flight from the self. Go a thousand miles, acquire a different set of problems, and even one’s character flaws may be turned to account. Speaking a different language, one might be a different person. This is what Julia hopes. ‘She was sick to death with the feeling, the consciousness, the every waking day moment of Julia Helen Delaforce.’
Julia goes to Italy to teach, and the book begins with three short letters she writes home. By the end of them, we know a great deal about Julia and her past, and we have had the huge satisfaction of reading someone else’s correspondence. It is difficult to imagine how a book could begin better.
Tim Parks is witty about language school politics, and perceptive about the practical and emotional paralysis that expatriate life can induce. Julia has left a half-hearted lover at home, and their on/off love affair is the book’s main theme. Interwoven with it are the stories of the other displaced persons she meets – like Alan, a would-be writer, who dreams of football matches while he waits for inspiration to strike, and the sneaky Sandro, who looks like Harrison Ford but thinks like Machiavelli. The use of letter has in effect allowed Tim Parks to write two novels, an Italian one and a London one; to keep a firm hand on his material, and to control the pace carefully. Between the orderly lines there are passions, betrayals, violent deaths – more surprises and revelations than one narrative could normally contain. No reader will feel short changed.