‘The Truth Commissioner’ by David Park

TruthCommissioner

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 372 pages; 2009.

All good things come to those that wait, which is a fairly apt description for how I felt as I read David Park’s The Truth Commissioner. I considered abandoning the book several times, before everything began to kick into gear somewhere around page 242. That’s a lot of pages to wade through, and a lot of information to hold in your head, before things begin to make sense. It’s worth the effort though.

The story revolves around a Truth and Reconciliation Commission designed to heal the scars of Northern Ireland’s past by finding out what happened to citizens who disappeared during the Troubles. It hones in on one particular case in which a 14-year-old boy, Connor Walshe, disappeared, believed killed by the IRA on the basis that he was a “tout”.

The Commission is headed up by Harry Stanfield, a human rights lawyer, especially appointed by the British Prime Minister as the Truth Commissioner because “he has no personal or political baggage to be packed on either side”. But Stanfield, who spent the first 12 years of his life in Belfast, feels no affinity for the place and thinks the process of the Commission is a bit like “an old manged, flea-infested dog returning to inspect its own sick”.

Later we are introduced to three other characters: Francis Gilroy, a former political prisoner who is the newly appointed Minister with responsibility for Children and Culture; James Fenton, a retired RUC detective who now spends his time climbing mountains and helping a Romanian orphanage; and Danny, a young man living in Florida who’s looking forward to the birth of his first child with his Latino girlfriend, Ramona.

The current lives of these four men are explored in rather sizable “pen portraits”, which read almost as if they are standalone stories. This is an interesting approach to take, because it gives the reader a real sense of these people as human beings, rather than as the stereotypical characters one might expect from a book that is about the Troubles (for instance, the Brit, the cop, the IRA leader and the young terrorist). But it also makes for a slightly frustrating read, because you have no knowledge of how these characters are connected, nor how they fit into the nugget of the story, until some 150 pages from the end.

The novel doesn’t hit its stride until the four divergent storylines merge into one. But once the pace picks up it becomes almost thriller-like as you wait for the “truth” to come out: what did happen to Connor and who is to blame?

This is not a book for impatient readers, but it is a rewarding one. Given it’s set in Belfast and explores the notion of relatives reclaiming their dead in a war that raged for 30 years, I had expected the book to focus on politics and religion. But these are mentioned in mere passing, and often with the sense that it was all rather pointless, as these observations by Stanfield attest:

He looks at the faces of those standing outside the drawing office. The wind has whipped their cheeks so that they look as if they bear thin tribal incisions cut in their flesh. And after all, what was it really, except some rather pathetic and primitive tribal war where only the replacement of traditional weapons by Semtex and the rest succeeded in bringing it to temporary attention on a bigger stage?

The Truth Commissioner is essentially a book about people, with foibles and troubled histories, who are trying to find their way in unfamiliar, peaceful terrain. You get the sense that none of the four main characters are bad people, but that they got caught up in events that were “normal” at the time but now, through the lense of peace, look barbaric and wrong. Each of them, grappling with secrets of their own — whether it be Stanfield’s penchant for sleeping with prostitutes or Gilroy’s belief that he’s not cultured enough to be the minister for culture — are plagued by guilt, fear of retribution and denial. Each of them wants a way out. The “truth” isn’t always the answer…

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7 thoughts on “‘The Truth Commissioner’ by David Park

  1. Excellent review. I fully agree with your conclusion that the book is about individuals who find themselves part of a much bigger event — not that even itself. I had less trouble than you did with the set up (perhaps because I know versions of the characters — they are all male) but was equally engaged when Park brought the elements together. He is a very impressive author.

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  2. A very good review which really lets me know what the books about. I have an inbuilt resistance to all things Northern Ireland – all that bigotry and prejudice rather puts me off. Probably I need to challenge that feeling, and this may be a good one to start with.

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  3. Admittedly, I was inclined to give this book a meagre two-stars, but the last third made up for the slow-burn of a set up. Funnily enough, I think this is a rather “male” book in the sense that the females in it are pretty two-dimensional. But I suspect that if you look at the entire history of the Troubles women were always in the background…

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  4. As Kevin points out in his comment, this is about people caught up in much bigger events, so this isn’t really a book about Northern Ireland’s history but about four individuals trying to put the past behind them. I think you’d probably like it, Tom. It’s a very male book, too.

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  5. I’ve always been interested in the angle that in Northern Ireland while the men did the fighting, it was the women that kept life going (a suberb production of Juno and The Paycock brought that message home). While I liked this novel, that was the element that was missing. You are quite right to characterize it as a “male” book — it would have been so much better had it included a couple of “female” stories, instead of just caricatures.

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  6. I agree, it was a slow burn, but personally I found his writing so beautiful and lyrical I didn’t mind, and I kind of assumed pretty early on that it would all fall together and that they would be connected in some way. I couldn’t put it down. It was a male novel, true, and could have included women; however it did help females look inside of males’ brains, and that in itself was somewhat helpful (if not depressing at times!!). As I am an American with Northern Irish roots (sorry; can’t help my peeps; One was Scottish and one was Irish; they came directly to the South in the 1700’s) it really did help illuminate the troubles and how it had all come to be. A sad and massive problem.

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  7. Glad to hear you enjoyed it, Darlene. I’ve just finished reading his new novel, The Light of Amsterdam, which is completely different in terms of setting and tone, and really enjoyed it. I think it’s a much more “accessible” and far less male read, and therefore should garner a wider audience than The Truth Commissioner. Watch out for my review coming soon.

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