Book review: Thomas and Mary: A Love Story by Tim Parks

February 18, 2016
Harvill Secker, £16.99

Tim Parks often writes about Italy, where he lives, but his latest novel returns to his native Manchester for a fragmented account of a 25-year marriage fizzling out.

Thomas is an advertising executive; Mary left work to raise their children. No crisis precipitates their divorce, despite his cheating on her with more than a dozen other women. The novel is less interested in plot than in crisp descriptions of petty resentment: in midlife, Thomas and Mary spend evenings on their separate laptops or on solo dog-walks, one feigning sleep when the other returns.

Structurally, the novel is an exercise in style, with short episodes jumping randomly in time and point of view. In one, Thomas’s dead parents discuss the action from beyond the grave; another consists of a monologue from his tennis partner, who listens to his worries about women’s orgasms.

One segment seems to be written from Mary’s perspective until we see it’s Thomas trying to understand her emotions: this is the story of Thomas and Mary, not Mary and Thomas. The parts about his growing up with a clergyman father and rebellious brother echo things Parks has said about his own childhood, and it sometimes feels like he’s imagining a counterlife in which he hadn’t become a writer.

Overall it’s an experiment with mixed results. Parks’s observations of family life are warm and funny but the deliberately undramatic structure suits his theme almost too well: there are no complaints and yet somehow you’re left wanting more.