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MisterHobgoblin

The Light Of Amsterdam

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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

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