Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 176 pages; 2018. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I was so gripped by David Park’s latest novel Travelling in a Strange Land that I read it in a day.
The book has a simple premise: a severe winter snowstorm a few days before Christmas has made all road journeys treacherous and flights have been grounded. Tom, who lives in Belfast, drives his car from Stranraer, on the west coast of Scotland, to Newcastle, on the east coast of England, to collect his university-aged son, Luke, who is ill and stranded in his student lodgings.
The narrative, written in eloquent, beautifully visual language, traces Tom’s physical journey. It details the ferry crossing, the monotonous drone of the satnav instructions (“Drive for six point four miles. […] At the next roundabout take the second exit“), the treacherous conditions on the roads, the constant phone calls back home to inform his wife and 10-year-old daughter of his progress, the additional phone calls to Luke to check his flu hasn’t worsened, the little stops and starts he makes on the road, and the people he meets along the way.
But that road journey is merely a metaphor for another journey Tom has recently had to make: that of a newly bereaved parent grappling with the death of his oldest son, Daniel, and the legacy of guilt and bewilderment and loss he now feels.
Deeply contemplative read
Travelling in a Strange Land — even the title is a metaphor for grief — is a deeply affecting read. It’s not sentimental in any way, shape or form. Instead it’s a wonderfully contemplative read, understated in its beauty, in its power to show the inner life of a man trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.
The narrative winds all over the place in tune with Tom’s thoughts. One minute we learn how he met and fell in love with his wife, who was engaged to another man at the time, during The Troubles; the next we are discovering how much he hates working as a wedding photographer because all today’s couples are shallow and obsessed with image over substance.
Music references are a constant refrain — “In the car I have the music I’ve chosen for the long hours ahead — Robert Wyatt, Van Morrison, REM, John Martyn, Nick Cave” — as are references to photography, including the types of pictures he wants to take of “the moment that lies just below the surface of things, or a glimpse of the familiar from a different angle”.
And I have come to understand the truth of what Ansel Adams said: that you don’t make a photograph just with a camera but that you bring to the act all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard and the people you have loved.
The plot, which is paper-thin and barely there, is compensated by the exemplary characterisation — even those people who are “off-page” such as his wife, his daughter, and even Luke are brought to vividly to life by Tom’s memories of conversations, incidents and day-to-day interactions. His late son, Daniel, of whom we really know nothing about, flits in and out of the storyline, as enigmatic in death as he was in life.
But everything is held together in an expertly crafted portrait of a father’s grief and of a man realising that the picture we present to the world is never quite what it seems.