Book review: Tim Parks amasses the thousand little things that show the death of love
The British novelist’s new work is like a collection of connected short stories, some of them breathtakingly good, that chronicle the decay of a marriage – but where is the wife of the title?
Thomas and Mary: A Love Story
by Tim Parks
There are moments in Thomas and Mary, Tim Parks’ fictional exploration of a 30-year marriage, that will make anyone in a long-term relationship wince.
The second chapter, for example, simply documents bedtimes in the household over the course of a week. On Monday at 10.30pm, Thomas is on his laptop, Mary chatting on Skype. “If he is going to work all night, I may as well go to bed,” she thinks, and by the time he joins her she is “sound asleep, face to the wall”. On Tuesday, Mary takes the dog out for a late walk. “I may as well go to bed,” thinks Thomas, and by the time she joins him he is “sound asleep, face to the wall”. And so it goes on every night, small rejection heaped upon small rejection, each one making it more difficult for either spouse to break the cycle.
In a chapter called “Zoning”, we learn how the family home has been divided, by some unwritten law, into two distinct territories. The downstairs toilet is Mary’s, Thomas and their son share the one upstairs. Thomas would like the garage to be his, but Mary insists on parking her car in slightly the wrong place. And though they share a bedroom, it is divided down the middle of the bed: the window side is Mary’s, the stairs side is Thomas’s. The sitting room, Thomas decides, belongs to the dog.
There is something perversely shocking about a forensic account of these humdrum, everyday conflicts: the small stuff is as personal and universal as dirty laundry. We may reassure ourselves that usually one partner will eventually turn over and give the other a hug, or do the washing up for a change, and the balance of the relationship will be reset. But how far away is any married couple from becoming like Thomas and Mary, whose petty resentments have, over the years, eroded the love that brought them together in the first place?
After raising two children, Thomas and Mary are, slowly but surely, splitting up, and Parks follows this painful process through all its twists and turns. But he also wants to show how its impact spreads outwards. The novel is really a collection of linked short stories, most of them centred on Thomas, some of them narrated by him, but a few written from the point of view of others: family members, his girlfriends (he has had many affairs) and even friends and neighbours. I found this ripple effect the least successful aspect of the book. The chapters about Thomas are by far the most convincing, though they needlessly and confusingly switch between first and third person. A few of them are breathtakingly good. “Reverend”, in which he looks back on his religious childhood, is a masterclass in balance and precision, and easily stands alone (it was published as a short story in The New Yorker).
Some of the other voices, however – particularly, it has to be said, female characters – never quite lose the air of exercises in character writing. The chapter about Thomas and Mary’s teenage son Mark is marred by clunky “yoof” references to weed and getting engaged on Facebook. But most problematic is the absence of Mary, who never gets a chapter to herself. There is nothing wrong with writing about a marriage breakup from the husband’s voice, but to attempt a 360-degree portrait that does not allow the wife her own point of view feels awkward. I rechristened the book simply Thomas.
Despite the many wonderful details, something fundamental about this story remains slightly out of focus.