The Light of Amsterdam – David Park

I have decided that this week we are going Dutch. Either the authors will be Dutch or the books will set in Dutch places. What is the inspiration behind this? Well, since you asked so nicely and weren’t forced into this way of thinking by me at all, I had the joy of going to Amsterdam back in July for work and whilst I was there I did my usual trick of reading a few books set there or by authors who lived there. The first of these was ‘The Light of Amsterdam’ by David Park which seemed perfect choice because of its plot (more shortly) and also because it was also one of the Fiction Uncovered 2012 selection, and I haven’t read one of their choices that I haven’t liked yet.

Bloomsbury Books, trade paperback, 2012, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘The Light of Amsterdam’ is a novel that weaves the stories of three pairs of tourists coming to the city for a long weekend (at one point as they were flying to Amsterdam in the book as I was doing the same thing at the actual time) and how their lives change over that weekend. As I typed that I, for the first time, suddenly saw how clichéd that sounds, but honestly ditch that opinion because David Parks does do something quite marvellous with that plot device.

Alan, whose career as an art lecturer seems to be going down the pan as fast as his marriage recently did, decides to take his teenage son Jack on a father son bonding weekend whilst making a pilgrimage of his youth. Jack takes his wife Marion, who thinks Jack is desperate to have an affair no longer seeing her as a sexual being, for a birthday treat and to get them away from their garden centre before the pre-Christmas madness. Karen, the cleaner in both an office and old people’s home, is there on a hen weekend which would be her ideal of hell anyway but is made worse by the fact that the bride to be is her own daughter. We then follow all three pairs as they pass each other in the street, or randomly bump into each other, as the weekend unfolds.

At first I have to admit that I didn’t think I was going to enjoy ‘The Light of Amsterdam’ at all. As the book opens we are in Alan’s head as he watches the final journey of George Best after his funeral and I was slightly worried we were about to endure the narrative of some middle aged football fan. As Alan went on to discuss his affair, the end of his marriage, how bored he was in his job, how difficult his teenage son was, etc and I was thinking ‘bugger, have I got to unpack my luggage in public to find another book’ yet there was something in the writing and the characterisation Parks had that kept me going and I am really, really glad I did because his characters are superb.

Call it the ‘nosey parker’ in me but I love books about people, regular ordinary people. People who you could pass in the street, fictional people you have met the characteristics of in people you have spent time with. They aren’t remarkable, they just get on and David Park has these characters spot on and develops them fully before the plane has left the runway and we get their back stories. Alan is simply a disappointed middle aged man, who feels like (partly through his own actions which is always worse) that his life has taken a wrong turn. Karen is a woman who got pregnant very young but has built a life for her daughter and herself no matter how tough it has been or how much she has had to sacrifice nor how menial the jobs she has to do in order to make ends meet. Marion is a woman who has a successful marriage, business and yet somewhere inside her feels all this is too good to be true, something has to give and will it be her husband, tipped over the edge when he buys her membership to a gym. It was Marion who I have to say I found the most intriguing, especially when you discover what she has planned on their weekend away.

“When the girls had finished their coffee he told them he’d drive them home. She was glad that he didn’t offer them any more wine and that he hadn’t drunk any more. When he went off to fetch the smoke alarms and his toolbox she looked at the bottle and was momentarily tempted to finish it off after everyone had gone but tried to strengthen her resolution to dedicate herself, if not to abstinence, then at least moderation. The girls left by the kitchen door to go and fetch their coats. She heard them chatting in Polish as they walked out into the floodlit corridor. Standing at the glass she looked at how harsh the light bleached Anka’s hair almost white. For some reason she thought they looked like prisoners making their way back to their cells for the night. She felt sorry for them in their struggle to make a better life. She didn’t think she could be as brave, told herself that she had never been brave, so this thing that she was planning to do seemed like it belonged to someone else and she wondered if she could find the strength to see it through.”

Even though I found Marion the most intriguing, I loved all of the characters the more I got to know them and as the stories developed. When I alternated between them as I read on I didn’t find myself mourning the last narrator or rushing onto the next one. I also admired Park for his sense of giving them some personal mini drama’s once in Amsterdam without every pushing the story lines too far and turning it into some farce or melodrama. The characters have issues, they address the issues, some overcome the issues, some don’t, the world goes on as it does in real life and I really liked that quality with the book. My only slight niggle was that I felt it ended a teeny bit too neatly overall, yet because I liked the characters so much I was almost glad of it and to be fair Park doesn’t make the most obvious thing that could happen end up happening. You will know what I mean if you have read the book or once you do, which I recommend.

‘The Light of Amsterdam’ is one of those great novels about the stories real people tell, the ones that you overhear snippets of on the bus/train/cafe and want to know more. It is three tales of people who you could quite easily pass in the street, and it celebrates the little understated drama’s that we have ourselves every so often. Those life events that aren’t huge and all encompassing, but that change us slightly or make us see our lives differently. If the characters are doing that you can’t help but do that yourself a little bit, whilst also looking around you and thinking ‘I wonder what that person sat over there’s life is like?’

Who else has read ‘The Light of Amsterdam’ and what did you make of it? Have any of you read any of David Park’s other novels? I have heard this one was something a bit different for him so I am pondering if I would like his previous books or not so would love your thoughts, as always. Tomorrow we are off for a little wander round Amsterdam…

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4 Comments

Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, David Park, Fiction Uncovered, Review

4 responses to “The Light of Amsterdam – David Park

  1. Good job on the review here. I loved it, for the language mainly; he’s a beautiful writer. But as you outline above, there’s a quiet but meaningful plot at work too, so it’s not just a pretty face. I have The Truth Commissioner in the tbr pile, but haven’t read anything else yet.

  2. David

    I read this in March 2012 and enjoyed it a great deal, but I have to admit reading your review was prompting a lot of “Oh, yes, that was the one where…” moments as much of it has slipped from memory. Some books just do that of course but I tend to think a really good book should leave more of an impression. Looking back I read it between Peter Carey’s ‘The Chemistry of Tears’ (which has stuck in my mind though perhaps not for the right reasons – I didn’t really like it all that much) and Sadie Jones’s ‘The Uninvited Guests’ which it feels like I read only a few weeks ago so vividly has that one stayed with me. Anyway, I do have two more of Park’s books somewhere (‘Swallowing the Sun’ and ‘Stone Kingdoms’) and I would like to try more by him.

  3. queenofthepark

    Another thumbs up both for the novel and for your review Simon

  4. queenofthepark

    Your response took me directly back to my reading experience
    It was a very subtle and satisfying story beautifully structured and compassionate

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