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T. Coraghessan Boyle: Water Music

Unlike, I suspect, most people, I came to this novel as a result of having read the Life and Travels of Mungo Park by the explorer Mungo Park, having always had a fascination for accounts of exotic travels by Victorian Europeans. A post-modernist take on Park was too interesting to resist and thus was born my interest in T. Coraghessan Boyle.

Boyle tells the story of Park’s two journeys to the River Niger. We have already encountered Park on this site, albeit from the perspective of the local populace. This novel, of course, tells us the story from Park’s perspective. Unfortunately for us but fortunately for Boyle, we do not have Park’s account of the second journey, because Park never returned from that journey. Investigations did reveal the cause of his death but there is enough room to allow Boyle to embellish though, of course, he also embellishes the bits where we do have Park’s account. Simply telling Park’s tale, albeit with embellishments, would have been interesting but no more. However, Boyle introduces another, fictitious, character, Ned Rise. Rise is your loveable Cockney rogue. He is into grave-robbing, pornography and other nefarious deeds. He is even hanged – and survives. We follow the two separate adventures of the two men, both of whom escape near-death many times. They are two different men, one a well-to-do somewhat naive gentleman, the other a lower class but street-smart survivor. They end up together on Park’s second and fatal journey and, of course, they clash. But it is all glorious fun. Boyle parodies both the travel accounts of Park and his fellow Victorians as well as the novels of the period, with their escape from certain death, coincidences and melodrama. Boyle throws into the mix his linguistic games, anachronisms galore and his historical embellishments to make this novel both a fascinating account of Park’s journey as well as considerable fun for the reader.

Publishing history

First published 1981 by Little, Brown