Wednesday, 25 September 2002

T. Coraghessan Boyle: Water Music (1993)

Edition: Granta, 1998
Review number: 1119

The Georgian England portrayed in Hogarth's etchings is the inspiration for Boyle's lusty historical novel. Its spiritual home, where its best passages are set, is the gin soaked city of London, its alleys and gutters, whores and thieves. That is also the origin of one of Water Music's main characters, con man, vagabond, grave robber and would-be gentleman Ned Rise. His struggles against a capricious fate - every time he begins to make money, some disaster leaves him worse off than before - make his adventures entertaining reading. He is a comic rather than a realistic character, so the reader doesn't identify with him enough to feel much sympathy when his fortunes fail.

The major part of the novel, however, is set in West Africa, accompanying explorer Mungo Park's expeditions to the Niger river. The inhospitable country - the arid Sahel of his first trip, the jungle of the second - is more a commentary on the London scenes than a contrast with them. The misadventures of Park are reminiscent of Flashman (without the cowardice or a large part of the humour) and, even after Rise joins him, are unsatisfying.

Without Park, Water Music might well have been considered rather derivative of The Rake's Progress (both the sequence of prints and the opera based on them). Neverthess, it could have become the germ of a work which would be more satisfying than the novel as it is. Water Music is also reminiscent of Moll Flanders, though Defoe wrote many years before Boyle's novel is set. (Mind you, Handel's Water Music was also the product of earlier decades of the eighteenth century.)

In a note at the beginning of Water Music, Boyle warns the reader not to expect historical accuracy in the novel. He was interested in the feel of the years around 1800, not in getting all the details right. In many historical novels, though, the effectiveness of the background is a consequence of the author's research. At first sight, Boyle's not might seem to be an attempt to cover up laziness, but he clearly must have done some research, at least reading up on Park. In the end, there is probably little less that is historically inaccurate about Water Music than there is about many novels in the genre, even if it is clear that the London that it portrays is based more on Hogarth's drawings than on more sober descriptions. Boyle's disclaimer made me expect something like a fantasy novel which borrows some of its ideas from a historical setting, something like Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels, or a cavalier treatment of history like the very silly George MacDonald Fraser Pyrates. This sort of freer setting might actually have suited Boyle better, though I found it difficult to see what he intended to say through Water Music, if anything.

I was interested and amused enough to read to the end of Water Music, but not, in the final reckoning, sufficiently impressed to bother looking out for any of Boyle's other novels.

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