Water Music is based on the real-life adventures of eighteenth century Scottish explorer Mungo Park as told in his book Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa. It also focuses on the imagined adventures of Ned Rise, a member of Park’s final exploration party, who uses his wits to survive on the streets of London. Both men are classic picaros, one in the mode of the adventuring nobleman and the other in the mode of the unscrupulous rogue. In the first part of the novel Boyle moves back and forth between Park’s harrowing adventures in Africa as he escapes mutilation and death at the hands of savages and Ned Rise’s exploits as he evades the clutches of fellow criminals and the gallows on the no-less-dangerous streets of London. Each chapter ends in a traditional cliff-hanger as the reader is whisked from the Niger to the Thames and then back again until the twin picaresque streams of the story merge, when Park returns to England a hero and Rise narrowly escapes death. Both feel the need to escape England and civilization, such as it is, which they do when Park makes his final (for him, fatal), disastrous expedition to the Niger River.
The novel has much purely visceral appeal; it is filled with sufficient sex and violence to hold the interest of even the most superficial and adolescent reader. Boyle is only following in a tradition, however; such violence and degradation were the stock and trade of the picaresque novel, which...
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