David Park’s novel The Light of Amsterdam is a paean to ordinariness and the everyday that resolutely – bravely, even – resists the temptation to make those things somehow holy or magical. There are no glorious epiphanies in store for the three characters he sends off on a December city break from Belfast to Amsterdam, no cheap moments of transcendence to make you feel like this book somehow contains the secret of life hidden within its pages. Yet it is a generous book, and the fleeting glimmers of self-awareness he gives his characters are all the more precious for their transitoriness, for the sense that they probably won’t be as life-changing as they – and we – would wish them to be.
The disparate trio, all parents, all in various stages of middle age, are: Marion, travelling with her husband Richard to do some pre-Christmas shopping; Alan, taking his sullen teenage son with him to see Dylan in concert, while his ex-wife jets off to Spain with her new man; and Karen, reluctantly tagging along on her daughter’s hen weekend. The loss of love features highly in each of their situations: Marion is worried that dull, dependable Richard is hankering to stray, and has a plan to deal with the possibility, while Alan is paying the price for single moment of sexual madness, and Karen is still hurting, twenty years on, from being abandoned as a young mother-to-be by the father of her child.
Although the chapters of the book revolve between them, Park holds off from bringing the three into too frequent contact with each other. This is a book of tangents and glances, not shattering, freighted coincidences. So a stranger’s hand unwillingly gripped on take-off (it’s Karen’s first time on a plane) sets up the moment when she and Alan bump into each other in the centre of Amsterdam, one of them fleeing their child, the other seeking theirs, and together follow the chanced-upon sound of music to listen to a choral rehearsal in a church. This time it’s Alan who needs comforting, but, characteristically, he is half-blind to the true situation. “And then the woman who sat beside him and whose name he wasn’t quite sure he had remembered correctly was holding his hand. He stared straight ahead and wondered if she was frightened of churches as well as planes.”
That’s a lovely line, and all the more potent for being held back, then relinquished. Park is frugal with his writing. He is more concerned with honouring the truth of his characters than wowing us with lyricism, but still there are pages and sentences that stay with you: that moment in the church, the description of the Dylan concert, with its inevitable sad echo of his, and Alan’s, Sixties idealism, and a few others that shouldn’t be spoiled by being named. This is a book solidly enough constructed that it can pay back the reader’s patience with a single, simple, line of dialogue that, somehow, manages to sum up a life lived, a life half-wasted, and the fragile hopes of a better life to come.