In an interview concurrent with the release of The Water Theatre, Lindsay Clarke claims that ‘the unconscious mind is the seabed of the imagination’. This is certainly true for his characters, who dream relentless, lurid dreams that are often more telling than their dialogue, and the book has an unfaltering mystic and hallucinatory undercurrent running through it. But it is the one dream—or perhaps nightmare —of our protagonist, a disaffected war reporter and former poet, Martin Crowther, that looms over the novel most—one in which Martin sees himself dragging the corpse of his father in a kind of macabre pub-crawl around Calderbridge, the town the Crowthers call home.
Martin has arrived—and awoken—to the rolling hills of Umbria in order to seek some degree of reconciliation between two friends from his youth, Adam and Marina Brigshaw, and their estranged, stroke-ridden father back home in High Sugden, Hal. Rewinding events by thirty years, we encounter a romantic, rosy-cheeked Martin Crowther, ashamed of his apolitical working-class family and about to have his horizons irrevocably broadened by the charming but ultimately flawed Hal Brigshaw during a stay with Adam before they both leave for university. Lured in by a world of jazz LPs, Cubist posters and communist manifestos as well as Hal’s plan to overthrow the British colony in Equatoria (a political manoeuvre alluding to the establishment of the First Republic of Ghana), he adopts the man as a surrogate father, admiring Hal’s appetite for what Clarke calls ‘a larger sense of life’. Adam on the other hand, becomes eager to disassociate himself from his father’s self-righteousness and pursues a more modest career as a teacher, reluctant even to finish his studies at Cambridge and keen to marry an Equatorian native, Efwa.
‘Adam said that you and he are living each the other’s life,’ prompts the mysterious Umbrian contessa and host, Gabriella. Before we get to understand the extent of this dynamic, and the role Martin has played in the trauma that has divided the Brigshaws (a trauma complete with cross-generational adultery and suicide), we must enter the world of mysticism and ritual—a Shakespearean setting, with lute-players, dark caves and a sense of spiritual fulfillment—that now constitutes the lives of Adam and Marina, quite the antithesis of Adam’s lifetime immersion in conflict zones. If Martin is to convince Adam and Marina, he must call his own ego into question and consider a larger sense of both his own life and that of his father, which he was so eager to shed three decades ago.
It is in a climactic, dream-like episode (down a very dark cave) that Martin reconciles with the spirit of his dead father, and one where he comes to terms with his love for Marina, who suffers most from her family’s fatal short-sightedness. This is a hugely engrossing read that manages to merge the mythical with a sense of urgent reality with great skill, like the works of John Fowles or Tobias Hill. What makes it so rewarding is its ripe and colourful sense of discovery at every turn, which, in combination with a rich, almost Hardyesque evocation of landscape, will make readers sorry to come to its end.