Thomas and Mary: A Love Story

By Tim Parks

Harvill Secker, £16.99

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Review by Rosemary Goring

The opening chapter of Tim Parks’s mordantly amusing, deeply sad novel depicts a seaside holiday when Thomas loses his wedding ring. He and his Scottish wife Mary have two children, and are in Blackpool. It was going, one might say, swimmingly until Thomas, putting his rather too-loose ring on the picnic blanket for fear it will slip off in the waves, comes back to find it gone. No amount of hunting will bring it back, and he is unreasonably unsettled by this loss. Mary treats the disappearance breezily, as she does most things. Yet some months later, “Thomas noticed that Mary was no longer wearing her ring. ‘I thought,’ she explained, ‘that if you weren’t wearing yours there was no point in me wearing mine.’ ‘But I’ve lost mine, I can’t wear it.’ ‘You could have bought a new one,’ she said. She was right, Thomas thought, but he wasn’t sure that that would be the same thing. ‘You didn’t tell me to buy a new one,’ he observed. She asked did he need to be told?”

He was right to be unsettled. Whether because of the superstitious weight he attached to the ring’s vanishing, or because he already felt their marriage was not as solid as it could be, that was a turning point. Had Mary not reacted as she had, he could perhaps have convinced himself he was being fanciful. But she had acted with chilly calculation and, as the chapters of this plainly written, vivid portrait of a marriage unfolds, it becomes obvious that ring or no ring, the couple were already heading for the rocks.

Bit by bit, in an emotional jigsaw told from various perspectives, but predominantly Thomas’s, Parks builds up his picture. The staging posts of marital erosion are deftly handled: his guilt-ridden affairs; Mary’s absorption in a dog bought without Thomas’s say-so; their unsychronised bedtimes, and so on. It will be all too familiar to those who have been there, a cautionary tale for couples heedless of the care and kindness a good relationship requires, and a horror story for those who discover they are simply but irreparably mismatched.

At heart, that is the problem with Thomas and Mary. She is the daughter of quarrelling parents, from Glasgow’s merchant middle class; he the younger, obedient son of an evangelical minister. Years on, the biggest regret of Thomas’s widowed mother is that he, a highly successful marketing brand executive, has not embraced Christianity. The scenes of her final hours are painful yet, as with everything in this finely judged work, neither overdone nor sentimental. As an antidote, perhaps, to the sorrow they evoke, Parks indulges himself in a poignantly comic scene, where the deceased parents finally meet in heaven. “It is extraordinary, isn’t it? The walls of jasper. The gates of pearl. And it goes on forever, you know.” It ought to jar, but instead it adds to the odd sense that death is not the most awful thing, be it of people or a marriage.

There are two sides to any divorce, of course, but Parks is wise largely to stick to Thomas’s view. His bitterness and incredulity ring true to the sort of man unwilling to see how he could have behaved differently. And yet clues are also offered to suggest that while Thomas is in some ways to blame, so too is Mary. In early middle age, he notices that she begins to make friends with women somewhat younger and beneath her socially – subaltern is the word he uses. After a period of intense chumminess, she always drops her new pal, without explanation or regret. It is hard not to suspect that a similar process has occurred with her husband, though over a more protracted period. As each sorry episode emerges, be it the territorial division of the house into his and her zones, or Thomas’s string of lovers, the weft of a lifetime’s home-making slowly comes apart. One doesn’t need to be imaginatively gifted to see the potential for novelistic shorthand in the gradual withering of a plant the pair were given as a wedding present, which accompanies them from house to house. There are such weathervanes in all relationships, no doubt, usually only given significance with hindsight. In this lightly told but deeply felt novel, however, the humour and symbolism are of the bittersweet or ironic kind. Treating his characters as well as his readers as too knowing and aware to be short-changed or patronised, Parks is neither trite nor glib. Clearly his subject matters too much.