(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Born in Manchester, England, in 1954, Tim Parks has established himself as one of the most respected novelists writing in English. He is the author of several novels, including Tongues of Flame (1985), Loving Roger (1986), Family Planning (1989), Mimi’s Ghost (1995), and Europa(1997). Parks has also translated Italian fiction into English as well as written about his years living in Italy. In 1999, he published a provocative collection of essays, Adultery and Other Diversions. He was awarded both the Betty Trask Award and the Somerset Maugham Award in 1986 forTongues of Flame. His novel Loving Roger won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1986. Over the years, Parks has been praised by critics for his ability to comment incisively on the human condition. His characters are usually unremarkable individuals who find themselves facing extraordinary predicaments where they must find an inner strength that heretofore was absent. For both Tongues of Flame and Loving Roger, Parks employed first-person narration in order to play out the short but intense dramas. The issues of commitment and obsession often play major roles in Parks’s novels. The characters must either rise to the occasion or they will crack under the pressure placed upon them. How individuals react while under stress has been a thread that runs through much of Parks’s fiction.

The author seems to enjoy putting his characters through their paces. Part of the challenge for Parks is to discover for himself how one of his characters will grow. He has stated that he could not enjoy the writing process as much as he does if he could not interject some rather devilish touches of sly humor. For his latest novel, Destiny, Parks has set up a tragic array of circumstances his characters must find a way to cope with and muddle through to become—if at all possible—better persons.

The novel opens with Christopher Burton, a noted English foreign correspondent, taking a phone call in a London hotel. He is given the shocking news that his schizophrenic son, Marco, has killed himself back in Italy. Remarkably, of all the thoughts that flood through Christopher’s mind, none of them really concerns what has happened to his son. Amazingly, Christopher even contemplates that he would like to leave his Italian wife of thirty years. The novel’s opening is precise and brimming with painful clarity. The verbal dexterity of Parks’s opening compares favorably with the rich language found in Vladimir Nabokov’s fiction.

The novel centers on what happens in Christopher’s head, and the clarity found in the novel’s opening disappears quickly as he struggles to come to terms with the tragedy at hand. With such a traumatic event as a son’s suicide, there really is no telling how rational any of the thoughts that rush through Christopher’s mind will actually be. His wife, Mara, comes from an aristocratic Italian family. She is very outgoing and seems to always be the life of the party. She does not share her husband’s more angst-driven point of view. Christopher comments that “you cannot marry a woman in one language and think in another.” Since Mara has refused to learn English, there is a deep divide between them. Christopher concludes that “language is destiny” and, therefore, no true understanding or connection can be made between people who speak different tongues.

In addition to their son, they are also the parents of an adopted Ukrainian daughter named Paola. While Mara has smothered her son with attention, she has been emotionally distant from Paola. Prior to the fateful phone call, Christopher and Mara had been living in England for three months; before that, they lived in Italy. Although Christopher has made a respectable career for himself, he always seems to feel out of place. In Italy, he is mistakenly taken to be German, while in England he comes across as American. He is an expert, though, on Italian politics, and wishes to break out of being merely a correspondent to write a definitive study on national character. Christopher has high hopes of interviewing the former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti. He views this interview as crucial to his study—without it, Christopher believes that all his years of extensive research will be for naught. In his fevered mind, it is time to jettison his career as a correspondent and become a full-time author.

A mere seventy-two hours pass during the novel. In that time, Christopher’s inability to deal appropriately with his son’s suicide triggers a stream-of-consciousness monologue in which he spews out his many muddled thoughts, missteps, and bizarre obsessions. Inconsistent...

(The entire section is 1936 words.)