Following on from my post last week about books from Northern Ireland, welcome to Northern Exposure – a new monthly feature where I will focus on a book by an author from this part of the world!
First up in the series is Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park.
Travelling in a Strange Land is David Park’s 11th novel and is a moving and precise exploration of grief, healing and the trials and joys of being a parent. Set in an impenetrable snow covered landscape, the book follows Tom, a middle-aged father of three as he sets out on a journey from his home near Belfast to collect his son Luke from university in Sunderland and bring him home for Christmas.
Travelling by car due to airport closures, Tom has no company save for his music and the satnav and it soon becomes clear that this journey is something much more symbolic than simply bringing a boy with flu home for the holidays.
Tom is a photographer. Weddings, school photographs, even pregnancy shoots, but he is jaded – only too aware that he is using the camera as a barrier between himself and life rather than illuminating what is already there. He is happily married to Lorna who is preparing for Christmas with their youngest daughter Lilly, yet Tom is prone to depressions and anxiety.
He sees this journey as a chance to atone, to do things right and to try to make sense of where he has come to in life. Lorna believes him to be a good father, but Tom thinks otherwise.
It’s not a claim I’d ever make for myself but I think that, if I bring our son home, in my own mind it might just help – even tip the balance, however temporarily, in my favour.
The majority of Travelling in a Strange Land takes place within Tom’s head as he muses on how he met his wife and his relationship with his own father. There are occasional diversions, mostly caused by the weather. He gives an elderly woman a lift to her snowbound house and makes a connection with another motorist whom he helps when her car veers off the treacherous roads.
But for the most part, we are Tom and his thoughts, punctuated only by directions from the voice on the satnav and by regular calls from his family.
Yet there is another presence in the car with Tom. His son, Daniel who appears intermittently. Daniel is the reckless family outcast, troubled and troubling and whose fate is revealed in slow, painful steps. Tom’s part in Daniel’s fate is also slowly revealed and it is this that has left him lost and unable to navigate his way through the strange landscape he finds himself in.
Bringing up a child isn’t like driving this car where I have the voice to guide me and, despite the snow, the tracks of other cars to follow, signals to tell me when to stop and when to go … instead what you have is a kind of blizzard of conflicting and confusing ideas where, despite thinking you know the best direction to take, it soon becomes obvious that you’ve lost your way and the familiar landmarks … have disappeared in a white-out.
Travelling in a Strange Land is a beautifully conceived novel. The idea of snow as something that mutes and changes the landscape is a wonderful metaphor for grief and loss and Park uses it with a deft touch. Photography is another key component in the story – what are the images that we capture in our lives, what do we see that we need to remember?
So what do I want to take photographs of? It’s hard to put it into words but I suppose the moment that lies just below the surface of things, or a glimpse of the familiar from a different angle.
I do this a lot –try to create pictures and let them pave the way to some future happiness but they are short-lived, almost fading away as soon as they’ve been printed and exposed to the light because in their place are more insistent and caustic ones that seem to exist outside any exercise of my will.
The photographs Tom takes for a living feel posed and saccharine compared to actual memories and the central importance of what we capture, what we remember, becomes horribly clear as Tom nears the end of his journey.
When he finally has to confront the one image he struggles to accept, Park describes the memory with a delicate, anguished intensity that is devastating to read.
Travelling in a Strange Land is a stunning meditation on parenthood, guilt and grief, beautifully constructed and lyrically composed. It is a daring, desperate novel told in a quiet, unassuming manner and is entirely unforgettable.
About the author:
David Park was born in Belfast in 1953, and now lives in County Down, Northern Ireland.
He was educated at Queen’s University Belfast and has had a distinguished career in secondary education, in particular contributing to the development of creativity in the curriculum.
He is the author of a collection of short stories and several novels. His first novel, The Healing (1992), won the 1992 Authors’ Club First Novel Award and the University of Ulster McCrea Literary Award. Set against a background of sectarian conflict, the novel describes the search for personal and communal healing. Further novels include The Rye Man (1994) and Stone Kingdoms (1996), which is set in both Ireland and Africa and also won the University of Ulster McCrea Literary Award.
His novel The Big Snow (2002), is set in 1963 against a backdrop of one of Ireland’s worst winters. It was awarded the Belfast Arts Award for Literature. Swallowing the Sun (2004) was shortlisted for both the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and the Irish Novel of the Year Award. It was also shortlisted for the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize.
His 2008 novel, The Truth Commissioner, imagines a South African style Truth and Reconciliation process has been established in the North of Ireland and describes how four lives become inextricably linked through a shared and hidden past. This novel was broadcast on Radio 4’s ‘Book at Bedtime’ and is being published in translation in Germany, Holland, France, Spain and other European countries. It has also been published in America, prompting the New York Times to write, ‘We’re reminded that with writers like David Park, the novel can itself be a kind of truth commission.’ The novel also won the Christopher Ewarts-Biggs Memorial Prize, which recognises works that promote peace and reconciliation in Ireland.
Subsequent books include The Light of Amsterdam (2012) and The Poets’ Wives (2014).
In June 2008, David Park was awarded the American Ireland Fund Literary Award for his contribution to Irish Literature.
My review of The Light of Amsterdam by David Park
Listen to the Spotify playlist David Park created to soundtrack the book here
Photographer Sonya Whitefield created an exhibition of work in response to Travelling in a Strange Land. Check out her pictures here.
Find out more about David and the thinking behind Travelling in a Strange Land in this interview with The Irish Times.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!