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Reviews of ‘Shear’

Following Fault Lines

Times Literary Supplement, 10 September 1993

By Nicholas Wroe

Tim Parks is a versatile writer In addition to translations of Calvino, Moravia and Calasso, he writes for the trade journal of the association of Italian Stone Machine Manufacturers. In Shear, his sixth novel, the strands of his literary career come together in a powerful and impressive work.
Peter Nicholson is a geologist, sent by his London office to investigate a quarry on a Mediterranean island for his Australian clients. There is a dispute with the quarry owners, and Nicholson has been briefed to find fault with the site and to write a damning report. He is accompanied on the trip by his young mistress, Margaret, with whom he intends to spend most of the four days, either on the beach or in bed. This plan is soon disrupted, first by the appearance of the widow of an Australian worker killed at the quarry, and then by a fax from his wife informing him that she is pregnant.

Hazel Own, clearly unhinged by grief, is looking for the reason for her husband’s death. With her young daughter in tow, she haunts the quarry and Nicholson’s hotel, asking questions and threatening revenge. Peter’s wife makes it clear that unless he responds quickly and enthusiastically to her news, she will have an abortion. When Nicholson explains the mechanics of a rock fall, he speaks of more than just geology.
‘Imagine a man released from the pressure cooker of home for a week. His heart expands, doesn’t it, his mind opens. Like a sponge when you let go. Well, it’s the same with the rock when you pull it from under the hill and slice it up. Stress relief. And as it expands, it fractures, in a cobweb of tiny cracks. Resistance to shear is reduced, it becomes more fragile.
Shear then occurs when ‘pressure is applied in at least two different and not diametrically opposite directions.’

As Peter, reluctantly, becomes more involved in the dubious activities of the quarry and Hazel’s plight, so his personal tribulations increase in intensity. By the time London instructs him to drop the case, forget his report and come home, it is too late for him to walk away from his tasks. He has already begun the exhausting work of digging deeply into the self and into the mysterious events he has stumbled on.
Parks handles his material with certainty. The intricate geological imagery, although studded by an uninhibited use of industrial and scientific language, is never seen to be crudely bolted to the narrative. The subtle links between client and contractor are illustrated in a range of relationships. The classical allusions are poignant and evocative. This technical mastery allows Parks to present with absolute clarity the complex motivations that drive Peter Nicholson on.

As the moral and emotional pressures intensify, so the imperfections of the rock are mirrored in the characters and the situation. Nicholson is pulled by demands from himself, his wife, the clients, his mistress and his boss. At stake is the marriage, the life of an unborn child, his career, his relationship with Margaret and potentially the lives of many, if the stone he approves for building is not safe. It is inevitable that all decisions and choices will emerge as suspect. Even integrity can be ‘just a cover for escape’.
The dust-jacket quotes a description of Tim Parks as, ‘the best British author today’. On the evidence here, there should be no reason to be so parochial in praising him in future.