A Dutch portrait from a master of detail

 

FICTION:David Park’s latest book takes Amsterdam as its setting but rather than racing through the red-light city, the novel takes its time to assert itself with calm authority

THE LIGHT THAT is most often associated with Amsterdam these days is red. And when you discover that one of the characters in David Park’s new novel is heading there on a hen-party weekend, you fear that the tone of the book will be decidedly blue. It is blue, but in downbeat rather than porn mode. In fact, the only time the red-light district appears in the novel is when Alan, a melancholy art-college lecturer brings his teenage son there and both are squirmingly embarrassed, just by looking. From that you can tell that although Park is going Dutch, The Light of Amsterdam is, in sensibility, a very Irish novel.

Park’s previous novel, the criminally underrated The Truth Commissioner, was set, as is much of his fiction, in his native Northern Ireland, and concerned the lives of four characters bound by the proceedings of a fictional truth commission. Park’s interest as a novelist is in competing versions of the truth and the subtle changes a shift of perspective can bring. In that way, every novel he writes is imbued with the North.

The Light of Amsterdam is no different. It opens on the day of George Best’s funeral in Belfast, a day as significant for the aforementioned Alan as the assassination of JFK or the death of Princess Diana would be to others. It’s a very Parkian choice – the quiet insistence of the local myth. Despite himself, Alan goes to watch the footballer’s cortege move through the streets. “He tried to justify his presence by telling himself that it was about respect, that it was about memory, because unlike most of those around him he could claim to have actually seen him play and not just the jaded pastiche of his final years when his legs had gone.”

Respect and memory are what drive Alan. The former he doesn’t get enough of: his boss has just warned him about his inadequate teaching skills and his lack of publications, his ex-wife is wounded and demanding, his teenage son is full of seething contempt. However, he has a surfeit of the latter: his broken marriage, his over-careful youth, and the musical soundtrack of the past keep on crowding in, seeking to be monumentalised in some way. A Bob Dylan concert has brought him to Amsterdam, accompanied, unexpectedly, by his 16-year-old son, Jack.

On the flight he sits beside nervous flyer Karen and holds her hand when the going gets rough. Karen is a 40-year-old single mother, working two cleaning jobs to support her daughter, who has insisted that Karen comes on her hen night. Karen has spent her life hovering on the edges of other people’s lives, yet intimate with them in strange ways. On night shift in city offices, she fingers the personal shrines of belongings the workers leave on their desks. During the day at a retirement home, she witnesses the physical desolation of age and its yawning loneliness, a fate she fears awaits her.

Another traveller, Marion, is beset by insecurity of a different kind. She is convinced that her husband is having an affair. For her 54th birthday he has given her the dubious gift of gym membership to counteract what she calls her “unwanted abundance”. In response – or is it retaliation? – she arranges a surprise for him during a weekend away in Amsterdam that will, she hopes, put a definitive end to her gnawing suspicions by embracing the very thing that haunts her.

Park expertly builds the trio’s lives at home before they ever board the plane; then he lets them loose on Amsterdam. The characters’ stories don’t overlap and meld, as the structure of the novel might suggest; indeed, they barely glance off one another. The light of a foreign city can do a lot, Park seems to say, but it can’t erase the divides of home. Nor do their problems abate in the holiday atmosphere: Alan still has an angry, self-harming son and Karen has a daughter seduced by the appearance of things. Only Marion, who uses the city to take risks she would never attempt at home, seems to have made a tentative new beginning, although, of the three, her story is the least plausible.

David Park is a patient writer who, with his careful and measured language, makes the reader wait. It is page 170 before we learn that Marion is “plain”, a fact that puts so many of her seemingly nebulous fears into perspective. One simple word withheld has the power to mystify and confuse.

But the best creation here is Karen, who is, unexpectedly, transformed by the light of the title, mediated through Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, in which she suddenly sees herself and her past illuminated. Like the girl in the painting, whom she notices doesn’t wear a ring, she, too, once stood “with the light slanting across her through the front door coloured by stained glass” with a letter in her hands. “It’s written on the paper he uses in his work and so he has made a business of her and her child. And he’s not ready to be a father or to be married . . . ”

Park writes with disarming ease, but his observations have killer precision: gangs of youths loping through the streets look “deboned”; a young woman at the gym runs “faster towards her own image in the glass in what looked like a desperate attempt to meet the person she wanted to be”; a barge is described as “cracking wrinkles” on the surface of a canal.

Small observations encapsulate major faultlines in lives: “Often when they went out they would walk along the seafront at Cultra – the Gold Coast he called it – and while she looked at the sea he would look at the large expensive houses that faced it, all fronted by landscaped gardens, and he would try to get her to play the game of choosing which one they were going to own.”

If there is a criticism of the novel, it is that the shifts the characters make are so subtle and nuanced they seem like stillness. Like a Vermeer painting, in fact. But there are few other writers who could write so plaintively about lives of quiet desperation. It may be plain chant but the language makes this novel sing.