Sunday, July 02, 2006

Judge Savage, by Tim Parks

There is a nice element of synchronicty between today's post and yesterday's, in which I mentioned going to see India play New Zealand at hockey. The reason I did that was because I'd just finished reading Tim Parks's A Season With Verona, which recounted his adventures while travelling around a lowly rated Italian football team, one which spent the latter part of the season on the brink of relegation to a lower league. He made it sound such a blast that I wanted to attend a sports event: I could not face rugby, and hockey was happening that very day, within walking distance of my office.

Tim Parks is probably better known as a writer of fiction - he is up to 11 novels now. Although I have Europa kicking about, I'd never actually read any of his novels until Judge Savage turned up on the library shelf. As the cover makes clear, he's a man of colour, although the photo makes him out to be a lot darker than his own description of himself as almond coloured. Nonetheless, he is the first black Crown Court circuit Judge in this particular bit of the UK. I'd say that the only real importance of his colour to the plot is that it sped up his appointment to the bench: he acknowledges his friend Martin to be as good as he is, yet Martin does not make it.

In most respects, Judge Savage is just another upper middle class male; nice wife, right sort of education, secure job, on the treadmill of acquiring the right sort of house and things to put in it, having a number of affairs (something like 20 in the past seven years or so). His obscure origins - he was adopted from unknown parents in Africa - are well and truly behind him. Things are going really well with him at the moment, he's even turning women down and being faithful. He writes in his diary "I have become myself" and maybe he even believes it - he does turn out to be pretty good at self deceit.

But on that same day, something silly he did years ago comes out of the woodwork to wreck his life. Back when he was a lawyer, he slept with a woman he really should not have, Minnie: she was a juror in a case he was arguing. Her family is also something of a problem, not just because they're Korean with very strict ideas of whom Minnie should associate with but also because they're running drugs. He has conveniently rationalised that it made no difference to the outcome of that trial and forgotten about her. Until, that is, she starts phoning, in evident need of help - there is pressure from her family to marry some boy and she's also worried that the police might be closing in. She wants out.

The novel, all 442 pages of it, is the tale of his life gradually unravelling. Funnily enough, it does so because he thinks he owes Minnie something, and does something about it. In going to her aid, however, her family decide to send him a message: they beat him up. Now some people might be able to just hide away until the wounds recover, but when you have a family and are a public figure like a judge, you need some sort of cover story. He couldn't tell the truth, because his involvement with Minnie was wrong on so many levels, so he just said he'd been beaten up by some thugs. His wife isn't really satisfied, as he had no reason to be where he was when he was beaten up. The cop investigating seems to be pretty much aware of the truth, but he's both interested in catching Minnie's family for their drug activities and in propping up the public figure of the Judge, so plays along, on a disturbingly "wink wink say no more" basis.

Of course, at the same time, Daniel continues with his judging work, so we get some pretty rich irony as he preaches about family values and the like. Unlike many novels, Parks gets right into the ins and outs of the cases Daniel hears - we read the evidence along with Daniel, get his take on the cases, the parties, the lawyers. One of the major cases intriguing him is about a group of young people, accused of throwing rocks off a bridge onto a motorway. There is all sorts of detail in the novel about the law of conspiracy, the evidence given by the members, the tensions between them that might lead one or more to lie... Oh, and there is the possibility that some prostitutes might have been witnesses, which leads to a neat linking between Daniel's professional life and more personal needs.

Along with his casework, Minnie, her impact on his family life there are all sorts of other little stories progressing. His best friend, Martin, has had a car accident and is sinking more and more deeply into depression. His wife is making more and more open calls on Daniel to have sex with him: we find out why she's so needy right towards the end, and it has little to do with Daniel. Then there is Sarah, Daniel's daughter, who is trying to find her identity: at the moment, she's a confusing ball of anger. She drops out of school, only to return to fill her exam scripts with obscenities. I'd say that she is the least well rendered of the characters, as we never really get what's going on with her in any sort of convinving way. Then there is a reuniting with his "brother" (son of his adoptive (white) parents) Frank, a gay Brick Lane dealer, after years of unresolved tension.

Throughout it all, we are constantly with Daniel, seeing everything through his eyes, getting his reactions, subject to his limitations - he often means well, but can't quite cash the cheques he is writing.

The last point is about Park's writing - he is really good at creating a host of different voices to populate the novel. It isn't that innovative these days, but he eschews traditional things like speech marks, paragraph breaks and the like. In consequence, there can be a bit of a jumble: within a single paragraph, we might well be thinking about 19th century music (Daniel's wife teaches music), Minnie, that damned cop, and a fairly fierce concentration on the work at hand: in fact, I'd go so far to say that it is the work and the need to stay focus which is all that Daniel himself has at times to hold himself together.


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