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Book review: In Extremis by Tim Parks has an extreme storyline

The book works as a brave, honest chronicle of a quietly unlikeable man whose unfaithfulness and other gentle vices have left him open to scorn.
In Extremis by Tim Parks and published by Harvill Secker. Courtesy Penguin UK
In Extremis by Tim Parks and published by Harvill Secker. Courtesy Penguin UK

“I had come to a complete dead end, a position of utter impasse and ugliness.” Thomas, the neurotic 50-something protagonist in the 18th novel from enduring English novelist Tim Parks, is pondering his life.

It feels like a key moment. If you can empathise with him, the book works as a brave, honest chronicle of a quietly unlikeable man whose unfaithfulness and other gentle vices have left him open to scorn.

Unfortunately, it is also too easy to feel irritated with how self-obsessed Thomas can be.

In Extremis is framed around the impending death of Thomas’s devoutly religious mother, a state of affairs that provokes a period of self-reflection, reassessment, doubt and even guilt – as it would for most people who come into proximity with mortality.

Thomas fears he has become something of a cliché: he has ditched his long-term wife for a Spaniard 30 years his junior. His friend has done the opposite, marrying his long-term partner – but he, like Thomas, is a serial adulterer. It is a situation both men think they can joke about, but which inevitably gets them into trouble.

All of this is written in a wry, sardonic and self-deprecating tone – none of which lessens the fact that Thomas is not really someone you would want to spend time with.

There is little more annoying in western culture than privileged, middle-class people moaning about how difficult their lives are.

Sanders’s constant obsession with texts and e-mails is just one way in which he is exasperating, even if such comments about our “always-on” culture might ring true.

Interestingly, a lot in this novel comes from the author’s personal experience. Parks grew up in a religious family and left his wife of 30 years for a 27-year-old Italian. And yet, given he wrote about the end of a marriage last year in the superior (and loosely linked) Thomas and Mary, it does feel odd that he is back in similar territory, and making the same error: we never really see the effect of Thomas’s behaviour from the point of view of the women in his life.

It is a frustrating novel because, like much of Parks’s past work, there are flashes of brilliance. Never mind the almost farcical situation with the best friend’s tormented son, or the frankly painful (literally) pages on the problems with Thomas’s “water- works” – the moment his mother finally passes away in the hospice is superbly handled.

In Extremis is an apt title: this is most certainly a novel of extremes.

In Extremis is out now

artslife@thenational.ae

Updated: April 4, 2017 04:00 AM

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