This year, I wanted to read something with a Christmas feel to it, and that brings me to The Light of Amsterdam by David Park–not quite a Xmas novel, but Xmas is mentioned, so as far as I am concerned it counts. Plus the novel depicts people on holiday, and regular readers of this blog know that I have a weakness for novels that take people on holiday.
David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam begins, quite beautifully, with the funeral procession for George Best. Watching the cars and remembering Best’s glorious career is Alan, a divorced, middle-aged, sad sack of an Art teacher who, after twenty-two years of marriage which culminated in a pathetic moment of listless infidelity, finds himself alone and living in a grotty flat. As Alan watches the procession, he experiences an “unsettling sensation” and connects with the life of the dead footballer through the memory of a lost autograph. It was something he should have treasured, but he can’t remember now how he even lost it. This thread of lost things–be they people, moments, feelings, or relationships, appears throughout the novel which finds three characters on the brink of some sort of change.
Alan, who’s facing crises in both his personal and professional lives, has arranged a nostalgic weekend trip to Amsterdam which includes a concert by Bob Dylan, and he’s guilted by his ex into dragging his disaffected teenage son along for the ride. Another main character is Marion, a 54-year-old who coowns a busy, successful garden centre with her husband, Richard. When Marion receives the gift of a gym membership from her husband, she’s convinced that it’s evidence of her husband’s dissatisfaction with her, and so she plans something significant for the weekend in Amsterdam.
And this present-and she can’t even begin to think of it as a present-of a year’s membership of this swanky fitness and leisure complex was filled with unanswered questions and once again it confused her that a man who could speak so directly in business continued to be someone unable to express himself openly in other matters.
The third main character is Karen, the single mother who pulls extra shifts at her two cleaning jobs in order to pay for the fancy bang-up wedding her selfish, vain daughter Shannon demands. Shannon has organised a hen party to Amsterdam, and her mother is included. This may sound like fun, but all the guests are required to dress as American Indians, and while that style may flatter Shannon and her youthful friends, it serves to make middle-aged Karen feel out of place and rather ridiculous.
We’re given some illuminating glimpses into the lives of these three main characters: Alan who experiences moments of disorientation in his new life, Marion who suspects her husband may be having an affair with a Polish employee, and Karen who’s accused of theft at the nursing home. So when these three people take a flight to Amsterdam in December 2005, they’re troubled and preoccupied by other concerns.
Once the main characters and their personal lives were introduced, I had a feeling that I could predict the direction the plot would take. It’s unfortunate when that happens–especially when the predictions become true, and because some of the plot is predictable, the interest here isn’t so much what the characters do as much as what they think in private moments:
You come to a point in your life when you’re weary of thinking of others and when for the very first time you can’t think of anyone other than yourself and suddenly you want to refind who that self is, in the hope that it’s a better, happier self than the one you find yourself with now.
Another problem with the novel is that all three characters are downers. While Alan’s son is in the throes of teenage angst, the three main characters, Marion, Karen and Alan are definitely mired in painful, middle-aged angst. No fun-filled spontaneity here. Alan is obviously having a difficult time accepting the fact that it’s time to move on; Marion has a lot to be grateful for and doesn’t seem to realise that she’s haunted by her own aging rather than her spouse’s wandering eyes, and Karen, well Karen just needs the courage to tell her daughter to think about someone else for a change. She’s spent a lifetime indulging her only child, and that indulgence has fed Shannon’s selfish streak. Just as Alan wonders how he can reach and reconnect with his troubled teenage son, Karen realises, rather poignantly, that the selfishness built around Shannon’s preoccupation with appearances, is a monster of her own making.
Both Alan and Karen “feel” genuine; I wasn’t so convinced by Marion, but I liked the author’s writing style and the way in which we see glimpses of these characters’ private thoughts and doubts. The author conveys the sense that these characters–all from different walks of life–find themselves shipwrecked in lives they don’t want for a range of reasons–even though those lives are built on a series of choices. They all feel dismay, on one level or another, about how their lives reached this point. There’s one marvellous scene when Alan is called in to talk to the head of his department, Stan, a man who “once looked like a Belfast Ginsberg and who as a young man thought that the purpose of art was to shock and disturb” but who is now weighed down by department politics and complaints from students about Alan’s noticeable lack of focus. Told by Stan that he must “evolve or face extinction,” Alan has mixed feelings about hoping to publish a paper or whip up an art show, and yet what are his options? Will he be able to abandon his lethargy and become productive once again?
The novel ends on a note of optimism that’s shadowed by the idea that in order for life to change, it’s sometimes necessary to overcome ourselves, our weaknesses and our prejudices, and for some of us, that’s both a tall order and a stumbling block.