She liked the trams, the way they surreptitiously pushed you up against the mystery of other people’s lives.
David Park’s subtle and thoughtful eighth novel surreptitiously pushes the reader up against the mystery of other people’s lives, in this case the lives of three middle-aged people – Karen, Alan and Marion – who are travelling from Belfast to Amsterdam in December 2005, all hoping that this weekend away will allay the fears that are encroaching on their lives.
These three characters have all come to accept disappointment as part of their everyday existence. Alan, a divorced art lecturer is headed to Amsterdam to see Bob Dylan in concert, but has been forced to bring along his teenage son, Jack. His position at the University is in jeopardy and his ex-wife is moving on with a new partner and a potential new life in Spain. He knows he has to adapt or lose what little he has left.
Single mother Karen has been dragged along on her only daughter’s hen weekend, despite the financial pressure she is experiencing trying to pay for the wedding. This is her first trip out of the country and rather than see it as a chance to take a break from the drudgery of her job in a care home, her fear of flying is blinding her to any positives this trip might bring.
Marion, despite a solid family life and successful business, is consumed with worry that her husband is going to be unfaithful to her and has hatched a plan to deal with his potential adultery in the least painful way possible.
Their stories cross and rub up against each other in a subtle way, as they travel on the same flight from Belfast to Amsterdam – each hoping for a trip that will be as transformative as the light of the Vermeer paintings in the Rijksmuseum.
Park opens his narrative with Alan experiencing a strong emotional reaction to the funeral of George Best, which brought Belfast to a standstill and was televised live to the country. As a device it is marginally successful, but he uses it to explore the bonds between parent & child and wife & husband. All his characters are striving to be understood and to be appreciated by the ones they love, but they are at a loss to know out how to do it.
Despite their inability to express themselves to each other, his characters have no trouble exploring their feelings in their own minds. They are reflective and self-aware in the extreme and the drive of the novel’s plot comes less from events that happen on this brief weekend break and more from each character’s emotional reaction to the little that does happen.
This is both a strength and a weakness in the novel. The thoughts of each character are laid out in such a detailed way, that there is little mystery surrounding their motivations and no real surprise when they do what they do. The technique of third-person narration brings the reader deep into their intimate thoughts, offering subtle unique insights, but little in the way of excitement.
The writing is lyrical, and at times beautiful. A child is rolled in a towel ‘as if coating him in flour’ while a man’s heart ‘kicked repeatedly as if a stone had been skimmed over it’. At times though, metaphor can be over-played and the detailed focus on the three main characters means that often there is little depth to the supporting players.
However, in its exploration of relationships, particularly those between parent and child, the novel excels. The light that each of the characters find in Amsterdam may not have the strength that they were looking for, but it signals a change in all their lives, no matter how small. There is a humanity to Park’s writing that brings insight into the quietest of moments in life and emphasises Marion’s thought that
what did any of it matter if everyone was still alive and you still had the strength to keep going on?
The characters in The Light of Amsterdam may not experience life-changing epiphanies, but in their own way, they each find a way to keep going on and this thoughtful novel successfully presents that as a small, but necessary victory.
Read On: Book
Number Read: 171
Number Remaining: 575
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!