The Water Theatre – Lindsay Clarke

The Water Theatre – Lindsay Clarke

Book Review of The Water Theatre by Lindsay Clarke

Lindsay Clarke came to fame by winning the Whitbread Prize in 1989 with his novel, The Chymical Wedding.  It has been a long wait for something as substantial in both scope and subject matter from this author, but The Water Theatre is every bit as complex a read as the earlier novel, weaving several themes and stories together through its 435 pages.  

In The Water Theatre, we read of family conflict and betrayal, the development of nationhood in Africa, the need for a spiritual healing to cleanse the grime of the past, and the quest for reconciliation at all levels.  Only a fine writer would be able to hold this together, but Clarke is equal to the task and has produced a novel which will remain in its readers’ minds long after the last page is turned.

Many people can look back to their adolescence and remember a time when adults suddenly start to take them seriously.  They were interested in what you were thinking and began to feed new ideas into your mind which seemed so much at variance with your upbringing.  

Different values have to be weighed and either rejected or assimilated.  Sometimes new directions are taken which drive you into a completely unpredictable course, leading you into a career or a lifelong interest which would never have happened if you had not met these people at a key time of your life.

In The Water Theatre, we meet war reporter Martin Crowther who has had a relationship with the Brigshaw family since school days.  As a bright but uncultured Yorkshire boy, he became friendly with Adam Brigshaw who invited him to the family home where he fell into a set of relationships which would last through the rest of his life.  

Adam’s father Hal , an idealist politician with an eye for world development introduces Adam to the challenges of forming lasting governments in newly independent African nations and becomes a lifetime inspiration.  Adam’s sister Marina is a perplexing beauty who entrances Martin, but is far from ready to settle for one man despite Martin’s obvious interest.  And Adam’s mother Grace takes a motherly interest in Adam which seems to be mixed with a variety of emotions, not all of them maternal.

But the main story here does not take place in 1960s Yorkshire, but in a more recent Umbria, to which Martin (by now a hard-bitten and emotionally-hardened journalist) has travelled in order to persuade a much older Adam and Marina to come home to visit their dying father, who seeks a reconciliation with his alienated children whose lives he has blighted by years of callousness and betrayal.

Martin hasn’t met Marina or Adam for many years, and he doesn’t know what he is coming to in Umbria.  He finds an elegant estate run by a Countess, Gabriella, who seems to be running a mysterious retreat centre based on a resurgent classical Greek religion.  

Marina and Adam are mysteriously unavailable and Martin gains the impression from Gabriella that Martin must prepare himself before he is allowed to meet them.  Are they members of a cult?   Gabriella seems to be a charming hostess but hints at mysteries which can only be revealed to those who have been through an initiation process.

At this point I must leave the story for fear of divulging too much.  The Umbrian adventure is interleaved with the story of Adam’s life, which seems to have been lived throughout in reference to the Brigshaws.  Some shattering events happened, leaving Martinwasted and emotionally crippled.  

And misunderstandings have left a legacy of bitterness which colour the present broken friendships.  Martin is not even sure that he wants to try to repair them, but his loyalty to his mentor Hal compels him to try to at least reconcile Hal with his children.

The water theatre in Linsday Clarke’s book is a grand affair with caverns and waterfalls which provide a marvellous setting for the emotional upheavals which Martin must undergo in order to cleanse and heal his past.

The background to the book is painted on a vast canvas, contrasting Adam’s dour youth  in the hills of Yorkshire with the exotic hand-crafted gardens of an Umbrian villa.  I found the images presented in the book to be vivid and long-lasting and I have to admire Lindsay Clarke’s almost architectural skill in describing the Umbrian locations with its old stone courtyard’s, its cascading fountains and hidden bowers.

As I read The Water Theatre I was reminded of Susan Howatch’s book Glittering Images in her Starbridge series which an out-of-control clergyman has to go through a painful process of unravelling in order to find the healing he so desperately needs.

Martin Crowther goes through a similar process of unravelling and Linsday Clarke has the same ability as Susan Howatch to involve the reader in the process so that the fictional character’s journey becomes the reader’s journey.  The Water Theatre is a compelling read which deserves a success I strongly hope it achieves.

Book Details

Title: The Water Theatre

Author: Lindsay Clarke

Publication: Alma Books Ltd (9 September 2010)

Format: Paperback, 450 pages

ISBN: 9781846881138