Once Upon A Time
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The Water Theatre
Lorna Howarth is engaged by a sublimely moving novel. The Water Theatre by Lindsay Clarke Alma Books, 2010 ISBN: 9781846881138
What a pleasure to read a book such as this, layered as it is with eloquent and compassionate prose, deftly composed narrative passages on subjects both tragic and disturbing, and infused with an underlying deep sense of longing for the lost poetic soul of boyhood.
The story relives the intense friendships between Martin Crowther, a northern lad, and a rather well-to-do family who live in bohemian style on the moors beyond. The friendship is an education and a liberation for Martin: he finds a father figure in the alluring and intellectual Hal Brigshaw – something that is lacking in the stiff relationship with his own irascible father – and he falls in love with Hal’s stormy daughter Marina, who doesn’t truly reciprocate and who seems to relish inflicting pain; yet the pain Martin feels most is from Hal’s son Adam, who belittles Martin’s poetry, his sensitivity and his innate connection with the wild nature of the moors that surround them, and whose own talk is all of science, politics and progress. And then there is the ‘ultimate betrayal’ that haunts the story and which the reader intuitively knows must be resolved.
In a skilful interweaving of past and present, Lindsay Clarke depicts the lives of these friends and lovers, forged in the furnace of Hal’s ideology, patriarchy and egotism; but the cracks of defiance from Marina and of doubt from Adam undermine their tight knot of camaraderie – and let the light in.
The Water Theatre begins with Martin, now a veteran war reporter, travelling to Umbria to find his estranged friends Adam and Marina: one last favour to Hal, himself excommunicated from the family and at death’s door, felled by a savage stroke. Caught in a thunderstorm, Martin pulls into a lay-by, falls asleep in his car and dreams of his own dead father and the terrible massacres he has recently witnessed in Africa. Exhausted by life, unhappy and disconsolate, Martin grudgingly steps into the past, and begins to confront his future.
What Martin ultimately finds in Umbria is his own salvation, but the journey towards it is tortuous. Eventually, when Martin meets Marina and Adam there is no warm welcome, no open-armed reconciliation. They are both aloof and yet gracefully at ease with themselves and each other. Having found a new community of friends in the Italian hills, they seem contented with their lives – a long way from the war-torn journalism that has made Martin famous and cynical.
What does Martin care? He’s had it with these Brigshaws: he just wants to deliver the message that Hal yearns to be reunited with his family, and then leave – to return to the tatters of his own relationship, to pick up the pieces of his own life. If only things were that simple!
Martin is taken on a journey of self-discovery against his will and better judgement. Somehow, he cannot escape these bonds that bind him to Marina and Adam, and subconsciously he seeks deliverance from his own ghosts: his father’s disdain, his guilt and shame. Knowingly, Adam insists that Martin take part in a seemingly arcane ritual in the eponymous Water Theatre at a nearby villa. This is the precondition on which Adam and Marina will agree to return to England to see Hal.
Reluctant, trapped and despairing, Martin embarks on a ‘hero’s journey’ into the underworld, through a candlelit cavern and across an underground lake leading to a terrifying crawl along an utterly dark, dank passageway to a chamber where, alone and confused, he finally ‘meets’ his father and relinquishes the psychological baggage he has dragged around with him his entire life.
Underlying the whole novel is the ancestral double-helix of cause and effect where the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, and of the traumatic cleansing process they all eventually undertake to escape these karmic repercussions.
A book of this magnitude – scaling the heights of passion and the depths of despair; alighting on the esoteric and fleeing through the grit of war – is a rare treat indeed.