Ask the average punter in your local bookshop to name a modern Northern Irish prose writer and chances are they will answer with either Colin Bateman or Glenn Patterson, both successful and talented in their own, very different, ways.
Few, however, would likely name David Park, a man with little media presence, but arguably Northern Ireland’s finest living novelist. Hopefully, with The Light of Amsterdam, his name will be on many more lips.
Park was born and ‘rared’ in east Belfast, and worked as a school teacher for many years. In the evenings, weekends and holidays, he wrote. The Light of Amsterdam is Park’s eighth book, but the first since he retired from teaching.
His previous seven (from his 1990 debut, a collection of short stories called Oranges From Spain, through to 2008’s The Truth Commissioner) have all dealt – in one fashion or another – with the realities of Northern Ireland's particular political landscape, and the consequences of the Troubles for its people.
The protagonists in this latest novel come from the same shores, but their troubles are revealed in the clear winter light of Amsterdam.
The novel opens in Belfast, on December 3, 2005. Alan, a recently divorced art teacher, watches as George Best’s funeral cortege winds its way through the streets of east Belfast. Soon, Alan will be travelling to Amsterdam to see Bob Dylan in concert.
It’s a city he holds dear to his heart: a city where, as a young man, he fell in love with art and his mind was opened to the infinite possibilities in life. This trip, however, he won’t be alone. As a favour to his ex-wife he will be bringing his 16-year-old son Jack along for the ride.
Jack is moody, recalcitrant and uncommunicative (in other words, a normal teenager), dresses like an ‘emo’ (Park wisely points out that Jack would hate that sobriquet) and blames Alan for the marriage breakdown which has left Jack at home with his mother and her 'dick' of a new boyfriend.
Also travelling to Amsterdam is Karen, a single mother who has been persuaded against her better judgement to come along on her daughter Shannon’s hen-weekend. Karen had been deserted by Shannon’s father whilst still pregnant, and is proud to have raised her daughter alone, working long hours as both a cleaner in city centre offices and in a care home.
Taking a break from running their successful garden centre, middle-aged couple Marion and Richard are travelling to Amsterdam to celebrate Marion’s birthday. Marion’s self-esteem is low, and – after Richard has given her the gift of a year’s membership to a gym – she frets that her husband no longer finds her desirable, but rather lusts after a young Polish girl who works for them.
The weekend in Amsterdam will test all these characters. Truths are revealed, false realities shattered and hard decisions must be faced.
Alan and Karen’s stories are especially moving since both feel themselves to be failures. They strive to salvage some small sense of dignity from their respective past disappointments and present struggles as parents.
It is here, in the small intimacies of life, that Park’s writing is most alive. He crafts a moving scene in the dingy toilet of an Amsterdam bar, where Karen realises that she doesn’t like her daughter Shannon very much, and captures Alan’s pride as he watches his son Jack sing in a karaoke bar.
Park’s third-person narration brings us to the truth of his characters' thoughts, and shines a light on their humanity with skill, honesty and insight. The Light of Amsterdam is an extremely moral story about the sympathies of the heart, about love and (mis)understanding, about relationships between loved ones, and about disappointment and loss.
The novel is filled with characters who live and breathe. These are the people of the new Northern Ireland, people who lived through troubled times but whose stories lay untold in favour of the drama of bombs, bullets and murder. The universality of their struggles, the relationships between adults, and parents and children, has led to The Light of Amsterdam being described in some quarters as a post-Troubles novel.
Although only the opening chapters take place in Northern Ireland, it is shown as a country of new opportunities, of beginnings as well as endings. This is our new reality, a multi-cultural, ever evolving society. It is headed for god knows where, but it is heading forward nonetheless. Thankfully, with David Park, we have a writer with the talent to chronicle our shared journey.
David Park reads from his work at the next Literary Lunchtimes event at the Ulster Hall on June 17 at 12.45pm.