'George Best's autograph. Where did it go? Where was it now? On a Saturday morning, a ligetime later, he stood waiting at the top of Cregagh Road close to the estate and wondered how you always lost the things over which you should have taken more care...'
I had turned back to the beginning after reading the final page of David Park's latest novel, The Light of Amsterdam published by Bloomsbury, and was sitting surrounded by that indescribable glow of a book finished, and a book truly enjoyed. I felt I had come to know Alan after 371 pages and I wanted to revisit that moment when we had first met, as he waits, under lowering Belfast skies and 'insistent and indifferent rain' for George Best's funeral cortege to pass.
Do you know that moment??
Not the cortege, although there could be some tenuous and clever analogy about that sense of bereavement over the final page of a good book that you don't really want to end... but what I really meant was the end of the book moment??
There is something very special about it, as important a part of the experience of the book as the reading the book itself. Part of the whole, those moments which can become embedded in the hours, days and weeks to come when a book will slip back into my mind, and with it some new thought...or perhaps a different perspective, or a completely revised understanding of what I have read.
It is why book posts rarely make it onto here the minute a book is finished. I may start drafting some immediate thoughts, but they will then sit and simmer for a while because that becomes an indication of a book's deeper power..
... how long does it stay with me...
... what does it leave in its wake...
... what questions does it make me ask...
I found a quote from Milan Kundera about the novel recently, and which I made a note of
“The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything....The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude."
I'm not sure I would concur with the vehemence of 'stupidity' but I would agree with the idea that a novel that makes me question and think more, rather than trimming and tidying up the ends and providing all the answers, is one to treasure.
Three separate 'couples' are heading to Amsterdam for the weekend.
Alan, the art teacher, destined for the realms of the dinosaur, on the skids in the changing environment of the college in which he works, is divorced after a meaningless fling which he then confessed to his wife Susan. Susan it seems didn't need much of a reason and has hot-footed it out of the marriage and into life with Gordon the builder, taking teenage son Jack with her.
Alan, at great expense, has booked a ticket to relive a moment of his youth and see Bob Dylan in concert in Amsterdam, a city he last visited as a hippy, and at the last minute and at even greater expense finds that Jack, troubled and angst-filled must go with him.
Karen, a single parent who is working all the hours god sends cleaning offices at dawn and care homes at dusk in order to pay for the wedding that her Barbie-glam daughter Shannon is busy ordering and organising... flowers, dresses, cars, photographer the works, and of course the hen weekend in Amsterdam.
Thus does poor forty-year old Karen find herself dressed as an Indian squaw as she boards the plane for a weekend she can't afford and has joined only with reluctance.
And then there is fifty-four year old Marian, of that certain age and taking a weekend break from the family-owned garden centre business with map-toting husband Richard. Richard has just bought her a gym subscription as a surprise for her birthday, a gift freighted with more than Marian, beset by doubts and a lessening confidence, cares to consider, and as if in response she has a very unusual gift lined up for Richard in Amsterdam.
And so the novel pans out over the weekend ahead, a strange city the perfect setting for sweeping away the props of day to day life and home, replacing them with disconcerting unknowns. It's a bit like putting everyone's life map back in their hands, but upsidedown and back to front making new routes a distinct possibility.
There will be revelations and heartache, misunderstandings and assumptions, people's lives balanced on emotional precipices and reaching tipping points where they can jump to a new future or stay safely, but unadventurously where they are. Waiting to be exposed, the seemingly safe barricades that people build around the messes in their lives, and which seem impenetrable and under control were it not for the unpredictable actions of others, the barricades are there to be breached if not quietly stormed in Amsterdam.
New memories overlay the old for some, with all their power to haunt and ambush, to console and to change, whilst for others these are the memories in the making for the future. There will be impulse and consequences, and moments when as a reader I started to visualise possible futures for all the characters... to me the sign of a very clever book if it gives me enough to be able to do that ...and to want to.
The Light of Amsterdam, and now the title becomes clear, is beautifully paced and structured, lives glance across each other, touch briefly usually at moments of reflection when people have time to notice those around them, and all those human responses to transition, change, threats and getting older, as well as the fragility yet corresponding robustness of family, are perfectly and seamlessly addressed. David Parks writes with enormous sensitivity and emotional acuity, this is proper storytelling at its very best.
So I had turned back to the beginning of The Light of Amsterdam and I re-read the first few pages. That quote about George Best's autograph not only reminded me that I probably shouldn't have sold my Dusty Springfield autograph on eBay, but that the notion of lost things over which one should take more care somehow underpinned the meaning of the book I had just read.
It was a realisation eventually arrived at by each character, and it is a book that makes you ask those questions of yourself too... about taking care of the things we love, and of ourselves in the midst of it all.