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Travelling in a Strange Land is another masterpiece from David Park. Tom is a photographer. Often commissioned for weddings and portraits, he has a good eye for composition. He is a man of taste and discernment, appreciating his surroundings and those around him. He knows he is being superseded by the ubiquity of the selfie, shared on social media in an instant, forgotten in a moment – but he still believes he offers a quality product. He is a comfortable man with a comfortable life in North Down (my guess is Holywood). Shortly before Christmas, his son Luke is stranded in his university digs in Sunderland, snow has closed the airport and Luke has a terrible cold. Tom is sent out on a rescue mission to bring Luke home for Christmas. The plan is to get the first ferry to Stranraer, drive to Sunderland and back in time for the last sailing home. God and snow willing… The novel is Tom, alone in a car, lost in his own thoughts as he travels across a strange land. Self-satisfaction starts to fray a little at the edges, and ultimately Tom’s thoughts are overtaken by his older son, Daniel, who is no longer part of the happy family. Daniel was a difficult child who became a difficult adult. Tom skates a fine line between guilt at his failure to love Daniel completely and resentment of Daniel for not being easy to love. All this crowding out the feelings he ought to have been having for Luke. There are occasional interruptions to phone home, the occasional interjection of the satnav, and a stop or two along the way. But mostly the strange land through which Tom is travelling is his own mind rather than the Scottish borders. The journey takes us back in time to a Northern Ireland long gone: paramilitaries and territoriality. There is a journey too through different social classes; Tom steps away from leafy North Down to explore the Belfast drinking dens and squalid bedsits of the Holy Lands. And then there is the journey through generations; from youth to fatherhood, back into the world of the young as he tries to find reconciliation with Daniel. As we get to know Tom’s story, we start to see him as more than the slightly pompous photographer. He is a man struggling to understand familial love and to accept human failings. It is not that Tom is perfect; he knows he isn’t and knows that neither he nor anyone else ever can be. It is that Tom cannot accept his own imperfection. There are some beautiful set pieces, sometimes inspiring, sometimes harrowing. The imagery is undemonstrative but precise. David Park needs few words to convey really complex ideas – not least the bonding near the end with the Angel of the North. Park trusts his readers to fill in the blanks, to make associations, and gives his readers the time and space to let their own imaginations wander. Park is a generous writer who lets the inherent goodness of the human spirit shine through in his characters, even when they go to dark places. David Park is one of the finest writers; pretty much every one of his works could match anything from Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguro. Yes, he really is that good. I hope that one day he will get the recognition he so richly deserves. *****
I'm a big fan of David Park - I have read all his previous works and loved them - but somehow The Poet's Wives had not appealed. I finally bit the bullet, bought it and read it. I should have listened to my instincts. See, the thing is, I don't really get poetry. It's just never interested me. So books about poets - or their widows - is unlikely to float my boat. This is really three separate novellas. The first, Catherine, tells the story of William Blake's wife who seems smitten with jealousy when Blake looks to hired help to supplement Catherine's inadequate housekeeping. Then we have Nadezhda, the widow of Osip Mandelstam, victim of Stalin's purges in the 1930s. And finally, we have Lydia, widow of a fictional and mediocre poet who neglected his family. Each of the stories is well written at the surface level. Each sentence is beautifully composed, presumably drawing from all sorts of poetic references. But when viewed from a distance, it feels flat. There is not enough in each story to keep the reader going. The characters never feel fully formed; they are short story characters inhabiting too many pages. The Mandelstam story, in particular, was familiar having been told previously in Robert Littell's more compelling The Stalin Epigram. In this telling, it was chopped into chunks many years apart, scrambled into random order - which can sometimes be a sign of a story that is not strong enough to carry itself on its own merits. As a collection of three stories, there seems to be a common theme of poets being narcissistic, self-absorbed people who treat their families with disdain. Somehow, their art provides sufficient justification in their own minds for treating other people badly. Perhaps this is some kind of comic juxtaposition between such insensitive people being famous for their sensitive writing. But this just doesn't seem to be enough to sustain the reader. In truth, the book drags. That's a shame, because Park's other works have so much more life to them. ***00
Three parties travel from Belfast for long weekends in Amsterdam. As their paths cross, and free of the constraints of home, they have an opportunity to take stock of their lives and address their deep seated dissatisfaction. It's not a new premise, but David Park draws his characters well. They might appear to be stereotyped at first blush, but Park has the sympathy and generosity to turn them into real, whole people with hidden qualities to balance their very obvious faults. The novel opens with George Best's funeral cortege, winding its way through the streets of East Belfast. It grounds the novel. It shows us we are exploring a slice of life in Belfast - straddling the working class through Karen, a cleaner at a retirement home, visiting Amsterdam on her daughter's hen party; Marian, wife of a garden centre owner is worried that her husband is no longer interested in her, travels with him back to Amsterdam to relive a honeymoon; and Alan, forced by circumstance to take his teenage son with him as he travels to see Bob Dylan in concert. We see the characters in their home lives; we see them starting out their journey to the airport, and we see them finding their feet in Amsterdam. We see them taking decisions we would never take ourselves, we see them finding meanings that we would never find. But that's the point - these are people who are not like us. Although, as they grow and develop, as they use the clear light of Amsterdam to see themselves, we find connections. We care about their fates. There is humour but it is not a comic novel. Amsterdam takes a bit of a back seat. The city is there, Rijksmuseum, red light district, canals and cafes, but it is only ever a backdrop for the human drama. It could just as well have taken place in Prague, Krakow or Dublin - it just needed to locate the characters somewhere outside their comfort zone. In this sense, it is a bit like some Alan Warner, a bit like Alan Bissett's Pack Men. Ironically, Belfast - the city where most of the action doesn't take place - has a much stronger presence. The pacing errs on the side of being slow. Although Light of Amsterdam is not a long novel, it feels as though there is a lot of space in it; a considerable amount of languor. That's appropriate, but it does take a while to get into the story - the scene setting at the beginning feels like a luxury that some readers would be reluctant to pay for. But those who do pay will ultimately be rewarded with a satisfying experience. The high point - for the reader at least - has to be Alan's night with Bob Dylan. David Park captures the moment with perfection; the moment when one finally sees a childhood hero in the flesh. There is not a word out of place in that section and we feel every twinge of Alan's conflicted emotion. There are other great set pieces too, but Dylan rang so true... The ending is not going to please everyone. Without spoiling things, it is coloured heavily by a dose of realism. Of course the characters have learned things about themselves but they end as the same people they began - perhaps a bit wiser, but still the same people. ****0
David Park is a much underrated writer, and it was no surprise to see The Truth Commissioner passed over by the Booker Committee. But it was nevertheless sad – The Truth Commissioner is a subtle, human novel that adds enormously to the oeuvre of Northern Ireland literature. The Truth Commissioner focuses on four people whose future lives depend in different ways on the handling of a truth and reconciliation hearing into the death of Connor Walshe, a 15 year old truant who sold tittle tattle to the RUC*. It would be easy to play this as the Commissioner; the Sinn Fein Minister; the ex-RUC man; and the “On The Run” Terrorist. It would have been easy to focus on what had happened in the original incident; on the police investigation; on the immediate aftermath on the lives of the Walshe family. But David Park takes a much more subtle approach, drawing careful portraits of the four individuals – from different backgrounds and with different perspectives – in great detail. We see four people set in the here and now, their pasts hidden beneath layers of denial and layers of later experience. The first half of the text appears to be simple pen portraits of these four, relatively unconnected lives. They are finely crafted, and David Park is able to evoke a sense of place just as much as a sense of person. The inherent dampness of the Belfast air seeps into the pores. The concrete corridors and warm forests of Romania lift effortlessly from the page. And the inherent melancholy and loneliness of all four protagonists cuts through the various settings and stories. In the second half of the novel, the forthcoming hearing brings the characters together. We see political intrigue; we see the lies and manipulation that have been second nature to the various sides of the Troubles shining on into the peace process. The irony is that everyone claims to want the truth, but in fact, very few people want it at all. And at heart, the truth is unknowable anyway. Too many people have too many perspectives, and the real truth is almost an irrelevance underneath all the hopes, expectations and prejudices. If there is a criticism, the ending does stray a little into cliché. The novel might have been stronger if it had ended as the hearing ended, and leave the story hanging. Alternatively, there might have been more pathos if people had just gone home without incident, leaving the past as a festering, but increasingly irrelevant wound. Whatever, the drama wasn’t really needed or expected. But it shouldn’t detract from what is a masterpiece of sensitivity and understanding in unfolding a scene of unremitting hopelessness. ***** * RUC is the Royal Ulster Constabulary - the ertswhile police force of Northern Ireland. They wore green, carried guns and were perceived by some to favour the protestant section of the community.