Tim Parks: Loving Roger (1986)

Tight and disturbing, Loving Roger begins with a dead body and a chilling question. Why has nice, ordinary, affectionate Anna picked up her kitchen knife and murdered the man she insists she loves?…This brief novel is a mordantly illuminating essay on the way love contains the seeds of vindictiveness and hatred.

A while back in a discussion Max from Pechorin’s Journal mentioned Loving Roger as an excellent example for a book that explored the reasons for a murder rather than having us guess who did it. I was intrigued and since I had liked Tim Parks’ Rapids I got Loving Roger a while ago. I had totally forgotten about the book until last week when I was hunting for a short novel or novella.

The narrator of the story is Anna and here is how the book begins

Roger lay on my new blue rug in the corner by the television and the lamp that seemed it always had the funny orange bubbles rising in it that he hated. But I went to work as usual. I made myself the regular cheese and ham sandwich and took the baby up to Mrs Duckworth for the day and she didn’t notice anything odd about me, I dont’ think.

What a beginning. To pack such a lot of information in three sentences, grab the reader’s interest and start right in the middle of the story is masterful.

After this intense beginning, Anna rewinds and tells the story from its start; how she met Roger, how they started to have an affair, how she got pregnant and how she killed him. The story she tells is quite disturbing. At first because the way she describes Roger makes him look like a total bastard and we don’t understand why she stays with him. He works as executive in the company in which Anna has a job as a secretary. Most of the senior men in the company treat the young women shabbily. They think they are not only simple but simple-minded girls. While Roger hopes that this is just a temporary job before he will become a famous writer and sees himself as something better, in the way he treats Anna he is just as average and shabby as the other men. He believes she is below him and tells her so. But she is attractive and sexy and so they start their secret affair. Anna tells a lot of shocking details of their affair in a very candid voice. She describes how condescending Roger is, how he is ashamed of her, how he lies and betrays. But then, after a while, she adds bits and pieces of her own family history, tells how much her parents loved her late brother Brian, how she doesn’t count at all, and that is when we begin to understand that not only is she a unrealiable narrator but that she has serious issues of her own.

The further the novel progresses, the more it is like watching a train crash. What she tells about the way Roger treats her, his pompous monologues, the diary she finds in which he analyses his feeling and confesses his infidelity, added to her constant repeating of how much she loves him, is unsettling.

Although the novel seems to start with the end, that is actually not the case. The book offers a final twist that is quite unexpected. It’s one of those surprising endings which alone make the book worth reading. However, that’s not the only thing Loving Roger offers. Tim Parks writes with extreme accuracy. There is an episode in which Anna and Roger bathe in the middle of the night in a river in Cambridge and when they come out of the water Anna struggles to put on her clothes. This is such a small detail but the way he describes it, how the clothes get stuck on her wet body, was so well observed.

The central story of Anna and Roger is a story of passion and obsession and it’s not always clear who is the victim. A lesser author would have left it at that but Parks manages, in just a few pages, to paint not only the story of an obsession but of a very dysfunctional family too. The way Anna is treated by her parents is awful. Her brother was always the favourite, they didn’t even pretend otherwise and after his death, she is even less important. Strangely, I didn’t feel much for her, nor for Roger, I felt for their little child. Just imagine, what I life he will have.

I really enjoyed this slim novel. It’s admirably well written. It reminded me a bit of Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy or some of Ruth Rendell’s books although Tim Parks isn’t a crime writer.

Has anyone read this too or another Tim Parks novel? He has a new one out The Server which sounds interesting as well. I have his non-fiction account Teach Us To Sit Still on my TBR pile.