A spiritual f lirt
She has been in the Dasgupta Institute, a Buddhist retreat house in the British countryside, for nine months, we gradually discover, trying to find release from the horrors of experience. The particular hell she has behind her is revealed only gradually but it involves being a rock singer who’s in love with an older, married man, a painter, while enjoying the love of a younger man, a muso. Up against it, she does something reckless and another life, perhaps two, are imperilled by her action.
The memory skeletons are slowly and casually revealed. We know a lot of the story from the outset but crucial details trickle out, perhaps like blood from a wound, perhaps from a natural bodily flow.
Our protagonist works as a server so she prepares the lashings of vegetarian food that the seekers after enlightenment wolf down. The novel therefore has a hell of an interest in kitchen work, and on the preparation, consumption and excretion of food.
Thankfully, it also has a more dramatic hook whereby our heroine, a bad girl according to strict practice, sneaks into a man’s room (the sexes’ quarters are separate) and reads the diary of a troubled publisher: his messed=up marriage and finances, his attempt to delineate from in the very act of captivation.
It’s all rather brilliantly done and Parks unites the winding stair technique of progressive but unreliable revelation (Ford Madox Ford’s trick in The Good Soldier) with the bringing to life of a sensibility that is starving itself for the sake of a spiritual quest, and that finds the curve of every apple and the touch of any hand like the first brush of sex.
This is a very clever book and, every so often, a moving, unpredictable one. It compels the sharpest sense of what the characters are like almost by a principle of hallucination. And an approximate minimalism is displaced on to the Buddhist regimen which, as readers, we partake of a bit excruciatingly.
So, in the midst of kitchen chores and chants, we see this girl with her mop of rock muso hair, her huge gleaming eyes, her sexy bod. And we hear her roughened-up vowels superimposed on her middle-class English.
It’s adeptly done and niftily compatible with the spiritual system that is so passionately being flirted with and evaded. We see the matronly American lady who has forsaken insurance for enlightenment and almost breaks the rules and embraces our girl when she asks for comfort. We see the Asian holy woman, like a flame of stillness, who represents the still point our heroine must approach.
The trouble with this fine probing novel, striving at every point for one part irony to three parts wisdom, is that it comes across in the end as flirting with spirituality and overly pious about it.
A fiction-maker as wily as Parks would see that objection coming — it is in fact implicit in the paradox of what he is doing. But it remains a problem. In the end his heroine is something between the sexy tomboy of a religious pamphlet and the wet dream of a clever bloke half in love with enlightenment and only half committed to the art of the novel. where he has come of breaking the cycle