|The Water Theatre|
by Lindsay Clarke
Alma Publishing Company, 2011
This story - part romance, party mystic religious adventure - follows Martin, a war journalist who in his youth had Pip-like existence, constantly led on by his Estella (the highborn Marina) whose brother Adam was his schoolmate. Their mother seduced him, their father befriended him and opened doors for him that would have been otherwise impossibly closed, and yet a rift some thirty years deep has separated these former friends and lovers when the novel begins.
Had the story remained in England or even simply maintained the necessary visit to the fictional African nation of Equatoria, it might have been a simple enough story of lost love. But things take a turn.
Marina and Adam's father Hal, with whom Martin has maintained a friendship since the beginning, is dying. He begs Martin to mend the familial tear and bring his children home from abroad before he dies. Martin immediately sets out for their last known residence in Umbria. Martin's journey from there is mostly mystical. There's a reliance in the narrative on a tumultuous general sense of loss which is addressed with an ancient religious fabrication that is rooted in equal parts geographic fact, recognizable Roman mythology, and wishful invention.
Clarke's novel (which, I understand, closely mirrors one of his earlier works) deals a lot in extremes - burning and freezing, blindingly bright and pitch black. Blindness itself is an overarching theme that explains every single plot point from Martin abandoning his poetry, to Hal's unwavering support for the new regime in Equatoria, to Adam's stumble in the mountains. Everything can be attributed to either an ignorant or stubborn blindness, and it is not until the characters are surrounded by literal darkness that they actually begin to see the truth and the light and the error of their ways.
I'll leave you with this:
I was reading this book in Bryant Park about a two weeks ago. It was a very hot - you might say blindingly hot - day and, as much as I was enjoying the sun I was afraid I'd have to duck in somewhere soon in order to not burn to a crisp. More than 2/3 of the way through the novel, I still didn't know what to make of it, and I was feeling a little bored.
A young woman whom I'd seen walk up to some other sunbathers approached me. Her skin was very dark and her dress was very white. Some of her teeth had been sharpened to points (which can be a little off-putting) and you could see the faded track marks in her dark arms. Being in a relatively good (though bored) mood, I didn't mind digging around in my purse for the quarter she asked for. While I did, she asked about the book. This book. She asked what it was about and I admitted that I wasn't really quite sure. I was a bit lost. She asked if she could read the back of it and I obliged.
I watched almost fascinated as her eyes scanned the words. I had made an assumption in my mind that reading would be a difficulty for her - the little socio-political racist in my head who understands the problem of illiteracy in this country spoke to me and I believed her. But when this woman - this girl, really - handed the book back to me she said that she could see the problem I was having...it's a book that wants to be about two lovers finding their way back to one another after a long time apart, but the way the writer sets it up to move back and forth in time must be confusing. When I agreed with her she added that she liked the idea of it, but she didn't know if it was worth waiting all of those pages for the writer to say why they didn't work out in the first place.
After now getting to the end of the book, I can't say I necessarily agree. The themes of loss and redemption are very thoughtfully explored and I really appreciated the culmination of the mysticism in Martin's visit to the subterranean cavern. And while the reconciliation that happens is satisfactory enough, I wanted more. I wanted the explosive energy that the story had kind of built up to, but we never really get it. We're never fully sated.
I gave the girl a dollar.