Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 384 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
They say travel broadens the mind. It can also shake us out of complacency or give us the opportunity to see things in a new light. This is what happens to three people from Belfast who travel to Amsterdam for a long weekend one December.
Three diverse characters
Alan, a university art teacher, is still coming to terms with an adulterous “fling” that resulted in the end of his marriage. Karen, a worker at a care home, is struggling to save enough money for her daughter’s upcoming wedding. And Marion, who runs a garden centre with her husband Alan, is feeling old and unloved.
All three, who do not know each other, are middle-aged. But they have other things in common, too. Each one nurses a private hurt, lacks self-esteem and is beginning to think that life has passed them by. Their individual trips to Amsterdam — all taken on the same weekend and on board the same flight — show them it is possible to change things for the better.
It also shows them that their loved ones are not the people they imagined them to be.
As with David Park’s previous novel, The Truth Commissioner, the book is comprised of multiple narratives. But this time around, instead of isolating each narrative thread in a self-enclosed section, Park intertwines them in alternate chapters. This choppiness helps keep the momentum going and reveals the unusual and often unpredictable ways in which these characters bump against each other, both in Belfast and in Amsterdam. And it also helps highlight the similarities between them, such as their poor personal morale and the need to find new meaning in their life and relationships.
As each character’s story unfurls, we get to see their flaws and weaknesses — as well as their understated strengths. There are “lightbulb moments” for each character as they suddenly see things in a new light — the light of Amsterdam of the title — and realise there is a way forward out of their current rut.
Alan, who is trying to relive his youth by attending a Bob Dylan concert, finds a new way to reconnect with his monosyllabic teenage son, who has reluctantly joined him on the trip. Karen, who is on her daughter’s crazy hen party, realises she no longer has to be taken for granted by the self-absorbed young woman she has struggled to raise alone. (I loved this bit, and I think a cheer may have emitted from my lips when the pair of them have the world’s biggest row.) And Marion, in Amsterdam for her birthday, discovers that she has misunderstood her husband’s needs for far too long.
A compassionate novel
The Light of Amsterdam is a gentle, worldly-wise novel about human relationships. It explores the gap between generations — and within marriage — and shows how our desire to be loved and respected is a common trait among all people, regardless of age or background. But it’s also a lovely and evocative portrait of Amsterdam, its tree-lined canals and quiet cobbled courtyards.
The Light of Amsterdam is David Park’s eighth novel. It has just been named on Fiction Uncovered’s list of British fiction for 2012, so expect to hear more about this book and its Belfast-born author in the weeks and months ahead.
5 thoughts on “‘The Light of Amsterdam’ by David Park”
Oh wow, that sounds like a great book, and I’m not saying that because I’m Dutch! It starts with the cover that totally appeals to me, and then your review. Yes!! One for the wishlist.
That looks like a really appealing list all in all, this one included.
I find myself drawn to novels with multiple narratives – great review.
Like many others, I very much enjoyed David Park’s ‘The Truth Commissioner’. Nevertheless, I have to say I was relieved to discover, after 2 or 3 chapters of his most recent novel, that Park has turned the focus largely away from the political landscape of the Irish troubles which feature so prominently in his earlier work.
With all of the central protagonists in The Light of Amsterdam on the verge of their own epiphanic moments, the novel runs a serious risk of appearing contrived. Park successfully avoids this, however, by manipulating his narrative to cast a transfiguring light onto its key characters, in particular Alan and Karen.
And that is the novel’s greatest weakness, that I can see. Alan and Karen’s stories are so strongly charged that Marion’s tale seems only to detract from their poignancy. Her dialogue appears to add nothing to the focus or backdrop of the novel, and the sections of the narrative devoted to her sound almost stilted.
The most prominent theme, and for me the key to this novel, is the parent-child relationship which is astonishingly well explored through Alan and Karen’s narratives.
That said, I do not think this book succeeds so well as Park’s ‘Swallowing the Sun’, which is possibly the most evocative parent/child story I have read.
All in all, a very good read, but I would not recommend it as highly as ‘Swallowing the Sun’ (which I rate even higher than ‘The truth Commissioner’).
Thanks for your comment, Jenny. I agree with you re: Marion. I found her story less believable than the other two, but interesting nonetheless.
I haven’t read Swallowing the Sun, so thanks for the recommendation: it’s one to add to the wishlist.