Water Music – Whores, Thieves, Sex, Clarinets

I have just finished reading a very strange book, Water Music by T.C. Boyle, an author I had never heard of, but found to be an immensely enjoyable read.

In the publisher’s blurb, they give an idea of what it is about:-

A funny, bawdy, extremely entertaining novel of imaginative and stylistic fancy that announced to the world Boyle’s tremendous gifts as a storyteller. Set in the late eighteenth century, Water Music follows the wild adventures of Ned Rise, thief and whoremaster, and Mungo Park, a Scottish explorer, through London’s seamy gutters and Scotland’s scenic highlands—to their grand meeting in the heart of darkest Africa. There they join forces and wend their hilarious way to the source of the Niger.


Whilst to a degree, this is a realistic description of this book, it falls far short of the complex reality of the book.  This book starts of as a humerous look at the mixed up world of 18th Century Britain, drawing contrasts between urban and rural life in those days, and we are treated to a no holds barred look at the god awful life that most people led in those unsavoury days.

We are also introduced to the world of exploration, as the Great Powers of the time – France, Britain, Germany et.al struggle to take over the rest of the world, and in this case, Africa. Specifically trying to find the fabled river, the Niger. This river is used as a sort of symbol for all that the white people hoped to extract from Africa – wealth, power and slaves.

Of the several heroes in this story, Mungo Park is the most astonishingly incompetent and dreamy idiot ever to set out to explore anything more complex than the nearest municipal park. A sort of Candide like figure, he staggers from one disaster to another, remaining cheerfully optimistic through the most appalling misfortunes.

He is balanced in this story by Ned Rise, who is a much better adjusted and realistic soul, but even he seems to go up and down through life as if he was in a sort of game of snakes and ladders.

In fact this is really two books in one, and as other reviewers have remarked, the two main characters getting together near the end of the book in Africa is something of a forced event, and doesn’t actually add anything to the story.

I found the last section of the story, when the two of them are together, floating down the Niger, meeting one disaster after another rather lacking in coherence or interest, and the end, to be brutally frank, stinks.

But, having said this, I have to say that I found the book a most intriguing and enjoyable experience, and can in fact recommend it to you with a totally clear conscience.   It is a very different and memorable book, one that will stay with you long after you have read it, the ill-considered ending not withstanding.

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