Bloomsbury, £16.99, 384pp. £13.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Light of Amsterdam, By David Park
Friday 20 April 2012
Love is "the price that had to be paid for bringing a child into the world," according to one character in David Park's new novel. Here, love is not an unalloyed joy, or a great benefit which happens to carry baggage. It is indivisible, negative as well as positive. Parents suffer unrequited love for their children, a wife tortures herself with fear of her husband's adultery, and a single mother finds that the past is not dead; it is not even past. Like Park's earlier novels The Big Snow and The Truth Commissioner, The Light of Amsterdam tells separate stories which touch and cross. Alan, Karen and Marion don't know one another, though their names seem to chime along with their stories. They are all middle-aged, living in Belfast, and travelling to Amsterdam in December 2005.
They are similar too in their frustrated lives. Alan is a divorced art lecturer, stalled in his career, planning to see Bob Dylan perform live "before it's too late" and forced to bring along his teenage son, Jack. Karen feels limited by a lack of education and a job in a retirement home; her trip to her daughter's hen weekend will be her first time on a plane. Marion fears that her husband's gift of gym membership means he is no longer attracted to her, and determines to make their city break away from the family business into a day of reckoning.
The flight to Amsterdam enables Park to highlight the differences between how we are and how we appear. The characters observe one another, each assuming the others to be free of the cares they bear. Events happen sparingly and are subtle, but Park's strength is to balance what happens with how the characters react.
They are reflective, self-aware, hyper-conscious; their thoughts are both the cause of events and a response to them. When Alan takes Jack to the Dylan concert, his realisation that "he'd damaged some part of himself by holding on too much to things that had reached their allocated span" will capsize the boat he has spent decades trying not to rock. Karen has to reconcile two pasts when her daughter shocks her with plans for her wedding, while Marion has to decide between two futures.
The conservatism of the characters runs deep into the structure of the book. Park is fond of metaphor, and can overuse images (such as Jack's dark hair and pale skin). The dialogue, perhaps inevitably for such cautious characters, tends to be somewhat stilted.
Park's psychological acuity is his great strength and weakness. The reader is convinced of his characters' motivations, so meticulously does he take us through their thoughts. But it means there is not much mystery: you get the impression that Park's characters never had a thought that he didn't write down. They think around issues so much that the reader is rarely surprised by their actions (though there is a nice ambiguity to the final scene).
The heart of this book, however, is in the parent-child relationships. Can an adult's experience help them cope better with their pain? Is a child's enthusiasm for the wrong thing better than a stagnant knowledge of what is right? Does a change in place bring about a change in life, or reflect one that has already begun? If parents have learned one thing, it's that answers are hard to come by.
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