Gods and Angels by David Park: lovers, relatives and other strangers
The difficulty we all have in communicating is central to this skilful collection of stories, writes John Boyne
David Park in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens.Photograph: Alan Betson
Gods & Angels
I call them the Chosen Ones. The writers who appear on the literary scene and for no particular reason are selected by the establishment as the most important new voices. The hyperbole is noisy and unhelpful but somehow convincing and stars are born. But each chosen one has an opposite number, an unchosen one, a writer who forges a career quietly away from the spotlight, producing novel after novel of textured prose while rarely being rewarded by either awards committees, public recognition or the bestseller lists. And yet it is in their body of work that the finest writing, subtle, elegant and uncalculating, can often be found. Ireland has a lot of the former and a few of the latter and I would posit that David Park sits in this second group, a writer’s writer, a creator of provocative, light-footed novels of understated sophistication that deserve to reach a wider audience than they have to date.
For me, two of Park’s most recent books – The Truth Commissioner and The Light of Amsterdam– stand among the best of the past decade, the former exploring the aftermath of the Troubles on four very different men and the latter describing in painful but utterly authentic detail the difficult relationship between a father and son as they embark on a holiday together. Some of these themes return in Gods & Angels, a short-story collection that moves effortlessly between generations, ideas and dramatic constructs.
Collections from established authors can often be tricky things to review. Unlike those by young writers, whose stories are by necessity written over the course of a couple of years and can display both a thematic and linguistic unity, those by older novelists can often be stop-gaps between bigger projects, gathering stories written at different times with such diverse concerns that the result can feel individually satisfying but collectively unharmonious, which is one reason why they are often best dipped in and out of rather than read over the course of a few days. We’d all like to have a Dubliners in us, a Winesburg, Ohio, a What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but a case could be made that it’s easier to write a novel than it is to create a cohesive story collection. The former, after all, contains a recognisable beginning, middle and end while the latter is really just a collection of middles.
And so it is with Gods & Angels, 13 stories that individually show why David Park is a writer to admire but that together somehow feel a little underwhelming, as if we’re waiting for the masterpiece within – The Dead, A Long Winter, A Perfect Day for Bananafish – a story that reflects the ideas of its book-mates and is as nourishing and substantial as anything that might appear in longer form.
At its best, as in the second story, Boxing Day, Park proves adept at scrutinising that most elusive and disquieting institution of Irish life – the family – through the conceit of a divorced couple, a deeply troubled and alcoholic mother and a devoted and caring father, whose only remaining connection is the 17-year-old son who is forced to visit the former every year against his will in the immediate aftermath of Christmas. What seems like a lingering kindness on the part of the father is somewhat muted by the speed at which he departs the house after depositing the boy on his ex-wife’s doorstep, leaving the young man to cope with the silence and awkwardness within, a task for which he seems emotionally ill- equipped. It’s a moving story in which very little happens but the power lies in the knowledge that whatever has driven this mother and son apart, an unnatural estrangement, will most likely never be solved. As in The Light of Amsterdam, where father and son find a connection through music, specifically the music of Bob Dylan, it is another inimitable soloist, Morrissey, who manages to bridge the divide between the pair as they drive back and forth, a sing-along providing an excuse to avoid real conversation.
Troubled relationships also lie at the heart of The Bloggers, which boasts a fantastic opening sentence – “The divorce didn’t go well, as might have been expected from how badly the marriage went” – and sees a separated couple expressing their anger and sense of individual identity through conversations directed at online strangers, while competing for hits and followers, a disassociation from real-world relationships that is echoed in Skype, where a father and daughter engage in an uncomfortable conversation over a device intended to bring people together but that serves only to highlight the distance between them. “These opening moments are the most awkward because until their conversation gets going there is always hesitancy, each meeting feeling like a new beginning, as if their separation has made them a little more like strangers to the other.” It’s a central conceit not just of these stories, but of Park’s work in general, the difficulty we all have in communicating with loved ones when our lives and experiences conspire to pull us ever further apart.
Less successful is The Strong Silent Type, in which a young girl brings a mannequin to a school dance in order to combat the demands of her peers that she must go with an appropriate boy of equal social standing. “I’m sick of listening to it,’ she tells a friend on the phone, “and sick too of those witches sitting round their cauldron in the common room pretending to be big-hearted by operating a match-up service.” It’s an interesting idea but, as the story is narrated by the mannequin itself, the conceit quickly grows tired and the girl’s act of rebellion somehow feels both irrational and a little self-congratulatory, which is surely the opposite to the intention of the piece.
Similarly, the opening story, Learning To Swim, which should pack a punch and set the reader up with excitement for what is to come in the stories ahead, is something of a damp squib, an idea that feels as if it might have worked better as the basis of a full-length novel.
Park is to be commended, however, for offering surprises throughout Gods & Angels, for his great skill with language and emotion, and for making estrangement, one of the great themes of his work, as uncomfortable to read about on the page as it is to experience in real life. John Boyne’s short-story collection, Beneath The Earth, is published by Doubleday