Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
David Park: Travelling in a Strange Land, Bloomsbury, London, 2018
This is an extraordinary novella from a Northern Irish writer I was not aware of, but it makes me very curious to read more of his fiction. It’s a tale of a snow-locked father and son (with an anxious mother and younger child at home preparing for the most important family occasion of their lives), and is set on the eve of Christmas. The father’s mission is to bring an ill second son home – and (spoiler alert!) to grieve the death (slowly revealed) of his first son. It’s simply and rawly unfolded. The snow is symbolic, and the slow journey from Belfast to Sunderland is agonising.
I loved the pacing of this shortish fiction. David Park slowly builds up the family situation, which is all disarmingly simple, and then proceeds to complicate as the father travels in a car in snow to northern England to collect a child who cannot fly into Belfast for Christmas. It is imperative that he be brought home. He is ill, probably grieving, and it is important for the family to be united after a major crisis in their lives.
The writing is restrained but emotionally deeply intelligent. How differently parents mourn a young death is front and central, and how divisive deep grief can be is the nub of the tale. All the surviving members of this family are in deep pain, frozen like the landscape they have to negotiate, and they are suffering differently. Just how they reconcile their differences, which are potentially relationship-wrecking, is Park’s subject. And his way of handling these differences is far from facile.
One of the fascinating aspects of the tale is the centrality to the main protagonist’s being of the fact that he is a photographer. This defines him, is his strength, but also potentially what can make him inhuman, detached. There is some satire at the expense of the lucrative end of his trade – the wedding album. The crisis and its resolution focusses on what he will do with a photograph which is beyond the bounds of decency and what can be shared even with a loved wife. It’s a profound moment in the book.
There are key tests of the protagonist: how he exists in the world with a much younger daughter, and how he maintains a relationship with her, having imperilled a relationship with the troubled son. I could have done with much more about the relationship with the middle child. Another obstacle on his path which helps to define who he is after the catastrophe is his kindly interruption to his journey to support a woman who has lost control of her car on an icy road. One senses that he is a man who is rarely deflected from his purpose, and that the two occasions in his life when he does so are defining ones. They also serve to contrast his failure to listen non-judgmentally to his first-born. He does this out of an impulse that is fatherly, but as the narrative makes clear, mis-placed and mildly censorious: he acts out of fear and anger, emotions any parent will readily identify with, rather than empathy. Remembering an earlier time of his parenting, he reflects on the children’s excitement at seeing tiny fish in a stream that the adults cannot yet perceive:
Suddenly their voices have the exasperation of the parent whose child can’t see what they can and then we do and they’re so pleased as if they’ve revealed something of the world’s magic to us. As if they’ve taught us how to see.
There is solemn moment at the end of this novel where the father pays homage to a giant statue of an angel standing guard. It’s a secular rather than a religious moment, and a moving one, as it suggests the father’s transition into a new space where he truly recognises the son’s essential difference from himself:
At the end I wanted to hoop him with my arms, not out of love, but to hold him so tightly that his tremble I felt passing into me would be stilled and the world fall back into balance. And I do not want my son ever to be me, despite whatever’s happening inside, never let him see my body tremble and if he can do it let him hold me only in love.
One of the insights the father has, and it is hard won, is that whatever errors he made in relating to his son, the steps taken were ‘taken with love’. The adult child’s greed for life and experience and risk-taking is finally a mystery – incommensurable with the father’s will to protect.
This is a disturbing but thought-provoking narrative about kids who challenge parental boundaries, and the pain of that for all combatants, even the most loving and well-intentioned.
Frances taught Literary Studies and is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.