BOOK REVIEW: Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park

‘The world is shrouded in snow. Transport has ground to a halt. Tom must venture out into a transformed and treacherous landscape to collect his son, sick and stranded in student lodgings. But on this solitary trip from Belfast to Sunderland, Tom will be drawn into another journey, one without map or guide, where he must confront his role as a father in a family haunted by memory, and divided by secrets.’

Well what a journey. What a ride. David Park superbly writes about the love of a father, the desperation of parenthood and the grief of past mistakes with unrelenting despair in an immersive tale that just keeps on giving. You get your monies worth on this trip, a haunting tale, which unfolds with a master’s touch that ensures the story and its impact stay with you long after you’ve got out of the car.

I started this book just after Christmas and feel that the choice (or luck) of doing this gave more impact to the book, as I read about Tom’s journey to Sunderland to pick up his sick and stranded son who is at University in the city, to spend Christmas at home with the family. Park paints a bleak picture of a journey from Belfast, in the snow at probably the worst time of year to have to make this perilous journey.  With Christmas being fresh in my mind and the inevitable travel chaos and treacherous road conditions of the Christmas rush. Park absolutely nailed his execution of putting us in the passenger seat next to Tom on his journey; I felt every bump, every swerve and every robotic direction bellowed by his sat nav.

‘When people tailgate me I feel the temptation to hit the brakes, let them learn their lesson, but of course I never do because that’s mutually disastrous regardless of who’s in the right. Drive for six point four miles. More than anything I’d like to be weightless, to walk across whatever ice stretches out ahead and never again to hear that splintering sound. When we were kids we’d break ice puddles, make the ice tear and screech, smash the thicker surfaces with the heels of our wellingtons. A rule-keeping child’s timid substitute for breaking windows and perhaps it’s my imagination but despite the music playing in the car I’ve started to become conscious of the slushy sounds coming from below my wheels and know if it freezes again the surface will be like glass.’

All of this is great; Park’s scene setting and descriptions throughout ‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ are meticulous in their execution. But, for me, where this book turns the corner from a good book to a great book is in the way Park deftly splices information into his tale for the reader to discover. I can’t say exactly what the outcomes are, as I firmly believe it would lessen the impact of the book, but what the reader is able to glean from the story and the subtlety in which Park imparts this information is a joy to behold. He’s like a parent giving a child a piece of a jigsaw puzzle; one piece at a time with the final image hidden, until the last piece of the jigsaw is added and you stand back in amazement at what is before you.

Park writes with a heart wrenching, unflinching tone that makes his central theme of a father’s love for his son immeasurably more hard hitting; delivering with confidence and assurance prose that you can quite easily lose yourself in, like being lost in the bleakness and suffocating swirls of snow drift. There is so much depth to this story; with themes of love, loss, anger, grief, failures, regret and hope running through its pages and it’s a testament to Park’s abilities as a writer to pull off a tale of such magnitude and depth with such elegance and proficiency.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this book, to parents especially. Park writes with such empathetic brilliance that ‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ was for me akin to a counselling session; it makes you think, makes you laugh, causes you to reminisce, whilst stirring the heart into action.

Do we ever escape the damage our parents cause us as children…delve in and find out!

David Park

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David Park has written nine previous books including The Big SnowSwallowing the Sun, The Truth CommissionerThe Light of Amsterdam, which was shortlisted for the 2014 International IMPAC Prize,and, most recently, The Poets’ Wives, which was selected as Belfast’s Choice for One City One Book 2014. He has won the Authors’ Club First Novel Award, the Bass Ireland Arts Award for Literature, the Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, the American Ireland Fund Literary Award and the University of Ulster’s McCrea Literary Award, three times. He has received a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and been shortlisted for the Irish Novel of the Year Award three times. In 2014 he was longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. He lives in County Down, Northern Ireland.

Travelling in a Strange Land is available from Bloomsbury Publishing here.

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 Review by Ross Jeffery

Twitter@Ross1982

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