(The Server was later re-issued in paperback as Sex is Forbidden)
I was first introduced to Tim Parks by my best friend, who for my birthday, got me a copy of Tim Parks’ non-fiction book, Teach Us to Sit Still, which follows Parks’ struggle to cope with an illness that doctors can’t seem to pinpoint, diagnose definitively, and so want to operate. After exhausting all other avenues, Parks decides he’ll try a Buddhist retreat, where apparently, pain management can be found in meditation. The Server is a contemporary fiction novel set inside the boundaries of a Buddhist retreat, obviously inspired by his own time in one.
Bethany Marriot is a ‘server’ in the Dasgupta Institute, meaning she sets an example to the retreat’s guests, and also takes part in the day-to-day running of the institute itself. It is obvious that Bethany is hiding a secret from everyone, using the retreat as a place to ignore the outside world, refusing to face up to her problems. And since sex, talking, male-female congregation is forbidden at the Dasgupta, Bethany knows she’s safe. But Bethany stumbles upon a diary, written by a man in the retreat, and she soon becomes engrossed with this man and his problems; inevitably releasing all of her fears and worries from the outside world.
The novel is wholeheartedly a character driven novel. Not much actually happens, so it’s absolutely important that you feel or connect with Beth; being written in the first-person. The problem with character driven novels is that they can be exceptionally slow, often literary and The Server sadly does suffer from this slightly. Especially in the beginning, where Beth hasn’t come across the dreaded diary, and where all of her secrets aren’t exactly known. But once you get past the routine of the Dasgupta, as well as all of the coinage associated with Buddhist retreats, this book holds within it as true mesmerising story.
Beth is annoying, there’s no denying it. But warming, easily relatable (if that’s a word) and clever (in a street-smart sense of way). You know she has secrets lurking in the background, and you can definitely understand why she’s staying at the retreat. She wants rules; rules to live by, rules to set her life a path to follow, rules so she can forget the past. And some of the book is about the ins and outs of the Buddhist way, showing the religion and its mantra in a calming and respectable way. Some of the points do make sense, and it gets us (the reader) to question the way in which we conduct our own lives – and to do that, must mean that Parks is a gifted writer.
But behind the rules, Beth is a rule-breaker. She likes rules, just so she can break them, and when she discovers the diary (which in itself is breaking the rules) it forces her to become more skeptical of the rules set by the Dasgupta, and the ‘old Beth’ starts to return to the fore. And it’s not a pretty thing. She’s in multiple relationships, often playing a game with them to get what she wants. She sleeps around with both men and women and she’s such an attention seeker. It may be annoying, but it makes for a fabulous read, and at times we can easily see some of ourselves in her character.
This is very much an adult book. Beth has a way with words, some of them expletives and sexual, but her blunt thoughts don’t match the persona of ‘Beth inside the Dasgupta’ and she knows it very well. She’s funny too on occasions, and its wonderful how The Server can flick between funny and serious so smoothly. There were quite a few times I found myself laughing out loud, but equally as many times where I found myself squirming, or shouting. It’s a book that evokes many emotions.
The Server is a clever novel. If you can get past the slow start, inside you’ll find a book that touches on religion, personality, grief and raw emotion. It was the Sunday Telegraph that said: ‘Parks is an excellent writer, capable of writing wittily and with great beauty about the near indefinable’ and I couldn’t agree more. Tim Parks has a way at getting deep within a character, letting us see both the character everyone else sees, as well as the true person inside. If you’ve read Teach Us to Sit Still, then it’s easy to see the connections between the two, but in my opinion, The Server is a much more successful book. If you’re someone who loves explosive scenes of action, then I’m afraid this book isn’t for you. If you’re someone who loves to delve deep into the gritty multiple layer of the human self, then you’ll find something very special indeed. The Server sums up exactly why Tim Park is a nominated Man Booker Prize author.
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