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.

48 thoughts on “Tim Parks: Loving Roger (1986)

  1. I’ve just read two novels in a row about love that turns to bitter hatred and violence. This sounds like a fine addition to the category! I’ve read Tim Parks before but years ago and a very different sort of book. I’d love to know what you make of Teach Us How To Sit Still. I have hovered over getting it but always held back in the end.

  2. Hi, Caroline. Have you ever heard of or read the novel “Morvern Callar”? It has the same sort of eerie situation (a woman even dismembers the man she loves) while manipulating the sympathy of the reader back and forth for the woman. It’s another short read, and well worth it, as it is a lesson in taut sympathy control.

  3. Haven’t read this, or even heard of the writer, but I like the idea of a murder novel that does something different – focusing on the reasons rather than whodunit. Ah, four days of meditation sounds wonderful!

    • I thought it was a great approach and very well written.
      I’m looking forward to my “retreat” – it’s not a real retreat, I’ll be returning home in the evenings, still.

  4. I like Tim Parks’ books very much but confess to not having kept up with him for a year or so. This one sounds really good – I like these multi-layered novels where you have to wait to find the whole story that the narrator is perhaps holding back.

    Teach Me To Sit Still is pretty good if rather unusual. I’d better do some amazoning and find out what Tim Park books I’ve missed

    • It seems The Server is based on his experiences with meditation and so on. It sounded interesting. I hope you will rean and review you it, it would help make up my mind whether I should read it soon or not.

    • No worries, Tim Parks isn’t a crime author, he just explores a crime theme in this book and there is also no focus on the act as such. It’s not gruesome or anything, just a well written psychological analysis of an obsession.
      He has writte a lot maybe another of his book would appeal even more to you.

  5. I also like novels that explore the why rather than the who when it comes to stories involving some sort of a crime (even though Parks isn’t a crime writer). I was thinking of Ruth Rendell’s Judgement in Stone as I was reading you post. I only have one or two of Parks’s books on Italy, but I must keep an eye out for this as it sounds really good–especially since you compare it to Jenn Ashworth!

    • It really reminded me of Rendell as well. I suppose if he had written more than one book in that vein one would call him a crime writer. I think you would like it. You like unrelaibale narrators as well.

  6. Can this be the same Tim Parks who wrote Italian Neighbors? I tried to get into that twice, but just didn’t care for it. This sounds more intriguing, and I’m very impressed when a man can tell a story from the woman’s point of view.

    • He did a really good job and that. He must be the same author as Danielle mentions something about Italian books. This may be my only criticizm of his work, you could never say “That’s a Tim parks” or not as far as I’ve seen while a great author for me, may be occasiolly repetitive but he has something entirely his own.

  7. Unreliable narraters can make for such great and nuanced stories. If a reader is not careful they can sometimes miss what is going on. However an astute reader can glean much from such a work. Of course I think that a writer needs to be really good to make something like this work.

    Your commentary makes this one sound really good!

  8. it sounds interesting. At first, I didn’t get what makes the book interesting to you…but then when I read about your description of Anna’s family and how her brother was the favorite…then I get it.

    Nice write up as usual, Caroline

    • Ah… you know me. 🙂 Yes, the family story is interesting, and it’s interesting how he wrote about it, just comments and siede remarks but you get the full picture and it’s quite horrible.

  9. Nice review, Caroline! The story looks quite interesting and powerful and I love the fact that the narrator is unreliable. When I read my first ‘unreliable narrator’ novel, it was one of the most interesting experiences of my reading life. I didn’t know that Tim Parks wrote novels. I have read his translations of novels by Italo Calvino and Roberto Calasso and liked them. He seems to be a man of many talents.

    • I didn’t know he was a translator. He really has many talents.
      I thought it was really well written and the end surprised me. Not that I need surprise endings but I thought it worked well and answered the last unanswered questions.

      • Nice to know about the surprise ending, Caroline. Some of the books that Tim Parks has translated from Italian to English are Roberto Calasso’s ‘Ka’ (retelling of Indian mythology) and ‘The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony’ (retelling of Greek mythology). I saw in Wikipedia that he has translated a few books by Antonio Tabucchi too 🙂

  10. I’m late at reading your entry, sorry, you must be meditating right now. (Lots of admiration from me, I’d never be able to stay still more than an hour unless I have a book in my hands)

    This novel sounds great and comes with excellent recommendations: yours, Max’s and Guy’s, wow, it can only bee good.

    I’ll look for it.

    • Yes, I’m sure you would like it – I’m not meditating yet.:) It starts tomorrow but I have a few things to prepare and am not online much these days.
      What I found strange is to read about an office in the 80s. Incredible how much has changed. It sounds like another world.

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  12. I’m glad you liked this one Caroline, I was a big fan of it as I said to you originally. The beginning really does hook you doesn’t it? And as you say, the candid voice.She’s so very unapologetic. Roger woke her up, but not perhaps quite as he wished to.

    I’ve read mostly early Tim Parks, and should go back to him given how much I liked his work. I remember Goodness being good (which I suppose is fitting), and I liked his first novel (which I believe is semi-autobiographical) Tongues of Flame which makes a good companion piece in some ways to Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit.

    Anyway, good to finally read your review and if you do read more Parks I’ll be interested to see how you get on. Emma, if you see this and haven’t read this (and if you have and I’ve forgotten, sorry) I do think you’d like this one.

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