SHEAR by Tim Parks (Grove Press: $21; 224 pp.). Tim Parks is an extraordinarily talented writer, as readers of "Goodness" or any of his other novels will tell you. Shear, however, is something of a disappointment, an interesting story overburdened with metaphor and characters you'd expect to find in an Ian Fleming thriller. Peter Nicholson, a geologist, has been sent to an Italian island to determine whether a granite quarry's extraction methods are responsible for the flaws in a slab which killed a construction worker when it fell off an Australian skyscraper. Nicholson takes his assignment seriously, and does find significant problems at the quarry, but the job is initially overshadowed by his links to four women: the loving mistress who accompanies him on this business trip, the distracted wife who tells Nicholson by fax that she's pregnant with their third child, the seductive daughter of the quarry's owner, and the widow of the construction worker determined to find someone accountable for his death. The "shear" of the novel is implicit in these myriad incompatible relationships, but too often Parks makes it explicit as well, hardly allowing a page to go by without making some comparison between the textures of rock and life. The correlation can be arresting--"The pain of shear lay in the resistance surely, not the breakage," Nicholson muses early in the book--yet becomes annoyingly predictable after a time. So, too, are the bad guys in Shear, namely the amoral seductress Thea and her father, who photographs his daughter making love to Nicholson in order to blackmail him. Those are the novel's major problems: its strength is largely Parks' choice of subject, namely the chasm between personal and professional life. Nicholson, in solving the puzzle of the fallen slab, attempts to bridge that gap, but the attempts costs him dearly, demonstrating the truth of his late-in-the-book speculation that one inevitably "traded in your ability to distinguish one matrix from another." Shear's final scenes redeem many of the novel's earlier flaws, and if it isn't a gem--to misuse Park's reigning metaphor--some of its facets are brilliant.
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