Brilliance forged under stress
The Observer, 22 August 1993
By Kate Kellaway
Peter Nicholson is a geologist who translates the world into rock. He describes his lover’s skin as ‘white to pink, perhaps potassium-aluminium silicate, but with a pearly lustre’. He can identify the rock a plastic table is trying to imitate; he dismisses his marriage as ‘erosion of an old uplift’. Nicholson’s obsession with rock reflects his cold, faulty purchase on the universe.
Tim Parks’s obsession with rock – he was a translator for the Italian quarrying industry – is more complicated. He makes his geological metaphors work hard for their keep. In his graceful, audacious preface, he even likens the composition of his novel to the gradual formation of a rock. Observing that no two rocks are ever the same, he describes his book, a thriller, as a ‘meditation on uniqueness’. The particularity of Parks’s writing (this is his sixth novel and best yet) salutes his theme. Shear is fanatical, chilling, but brilliant.
Parks constantly plays off distinctive details against nondescript universality – Nicholson is dogged by the fear that nothing is unique, but he is beginning to learn that one love is not the same as another.
He’s easily distracted from his work. He’s supposed to be investigating a granite quarry on a Mediterranean island on behalf of an Australian client. A man has died in suspicious circumstances. For Nicholson, at first, his death is little more than an inconvenience. But he observes two things about the dead man, details that fall in with his anxious preoccupation, ‘a banal uniqueness’ and an undermining similarity to himself – a chipped tooth (He notices teeth with particular zeal, as you would expect).
While Nicholson fails to investigate the man’s death adequately, Parks conducts an investigation of his own into the nature of duty and of countervailing irresponsibility. Parks has a gift for overseeing his material – with aerial mastery. He’s the man who sits in the crane monitoring work in the quarry.
He explores the nightmare of a man compulsively escaping. Nicholson escapes his marriage, for a much younger woman – who comes with him to the island. He loves her but finds himself, almost involuntarily escaping again, going to bed with a beautiful interpreter (with suspiciously perfect teeth). Escaping from escape is a trap: the harder he runs, the more the drawstrings around his life tighten. Parks makes us see what a slippery thing a sense of duty is, especially in the context of wholesale infidelity. Duty becomes an alternative form of escape; a return ticket to an old life.
We are told, ‘when pressure is applied in at least two different and not diametrically opposite directions’ the result is ‘shear’. It’s a pleasingly exact description of what most of us would describe as stress. Parks offers a devastating picture of the effects of extreme pressure.
Nicholson’s mind resembles the sound-proof cabin at the quarry – he only lets into his consciousness chosen interference from outside, ignoring frantic faxes he receives from his wife. The book seems (and Parks’s introduction obliquely confirms this) to have been written out of pain; it has a cauterised articulacy. Definitely a novel for the Booker shortlist – which is just another way of saying: read it.