The Light of Amsterdam
David Park
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Buy *The Light of Amsterdam* by David Parkonline

The Light of Amsterdam
David Park
Bloomsbury USA
384 pages
November 2012
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Park’s engrossing, meditative debut offers an unsettlingly realistic view of friendships, family and loneliness. Alan, Karen and Marion, who all live in the same Irish city, appear to be ships passing in the night. They share the same insecurities about their children and their loved ones--especially Marion, who balks at her husband Richard’s gift of a gym membership. Spinning into a maelstrom of self-doubt, Marion begins to question stalwart Richard’s fidelity to her and to their marriage.

Park’s story perpetuates a sense of distortion, of objects and of people being turned into things; there is a sense of persistent fragmentation. Alan, a disillusioned teacher at the city’s art college, looks back with regret over his divorce, plagued by an unsettling sensation for all that is lost. Having just booked to go to see a Bob Dylan concert in Amsterdam, Alan is initially hesitant when asked by ex-wife Susan to look after his son, Jack, so that she can go to Spain for a weekend to look at some property.

Jack, who at the tumultuous age of sixteen has sailed into “a maelstrom of adolescent upheaval,” is quick to dump the blame for Alan's “pathetic infidelity.” He is nonetheless willing to give his father a chance and go with him to Amsterdam, where he can finally catch a break from his mother’s “loud-mouthed, moronic” boyfriend, Gordon. In one of many stream-of-consciousness passages, Alan thinks about seeing Bob Dylan and how the experience is tempered by the need to accommodate his son’s unpredictable and unfathomable state of being.

Park’s characters are as emotionally colorful as they are distractingly real. Arriving in Amsterdam, a city full of tourists, strangers, and mist-shrouded canals, Alan and Marion are filled with anticipation generated by memories. Imbued with a heady sense of self-righteousness, Marion, in particular no longer knows what she does. Convinced that if she gives Richard a “gift” given out of her love for him, she will stave off this sense of madness that seems to be enveloping her.

Most empathetic is Karen. A cleaner at a senior care center, Karen has built her hardscrabble life on struggle. Bitter over “those who are given access to higher levels of reward,” Karen has spent the last months scrimping and saving for daughter Shannon's marriage. She’s the first to admit that she doesn’t want to go to Amsterdam for Shannon’s hen night, but she puts on a brave face despite her daughter's irritatingly facile nature and fixation with appearances. Whatever love or excitement mother and daughter once shared has long since withered, making Karen think of her own life and of the night she was dumped at three months pregnant.

Deeply pensive and hyper-sensitive, Karen, Alan and Marion find solace in the healing of love gone wrong. More than any other character, Karen understands the likelihood of failure and of having "naive expectations." Damaged by the bitterness of her experiences, she goes ballistic at Shannon’s unexpected confession in the bathroom of a nightclub. She adamantly refuses to reconnect with the man who abandoned her to the world’s scorn with a scribbled note pushed though her parents' front door. Shannon’s unapologetic selfishness triggers Karen’s waterfall of emotion as her memories blur between the past and the present.

Park mixes his troubled protagonists with a poetic voice to emphasizes his major themes: personal collateral damage, the moral condemnation of your child, and how the bitterness of loneliness is slowly replaced by self-pity. Essentially people searching for connection in the minefield of emotional distress, Park's characters are imbued with the possibility of happiness but delicately tinted with hints of loss and despair.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2012

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