This is my review of The Server by Tim Parks.
Drawing on his own experience of transcendental meditation, Tim Parks transports us into the mind of Beth, impulsive, provocative, sensuous twenty-something former singer in a pop band who has spent the past nine months in the incongruous role of server cooking, cleaning and setting a good example for a group of meditators on a ten day Buddhist retreat.
It is a strict regime: segregation of the sexes, no talking or touching, hours of exerting the "strong determination" to sit motionless in painful poses, focusing on breathing with the daily brainwashing from recordings made by the guru Dasgupta, "who preaches against self-regard in a self-regarding way". There is a consistent tone of scepticism, a flippancy, which may upset strong advocates of meditation. Despite this, Parks conveys a clear and strong sense of the process of meditation.
Although she used to have no trouble losing herself in music, and wishes ardently to change herself through meditation, Beth's thoughts keep slipping back to speculating about the other inmates, whom she cannot resist winding up and leading astray on occasion, or brooding on her clearly troubled past life. Some recent trauma has driven her to the retreat, and Parks skilfully drips out the facts to hold our attention.
Sometimes I found this book too contrived, too much of a master class in creative writing by an expert published author, rather than a sincere examination of human dilemmas. The detailed descriptions of the routines at the retreat are sometimes tedious, although this may have been the author's intention. Since he builds up a strong sense of tension, moving towards an anticipated dramatic, perhaps shocking and unpredictable ending, I was a little disappointed by the final chapters which have a kind of banality, making the experience in the retreat seem lightweight.
However, it is an original, well-constructed story and in the midst of the wry, jokey humour, there are some convincing characters and many telling observations on life and relationships.