A winter car journey and a father's search for redemption
Fiction: Travelling in a Strange Land, David Park, Bloomsbury, hardback, 176 pages, €16.00
It's Christmastime and Tom is making a hazardous snowbound journey, by ferry and car, from Belfast to Sunderland. His son, Luke, who studies there, has become ill and is laid low in his lodgings, and Tom is on a rescue mission to bring him home for the holidays.
That's the basic narrative of David Park's new novel, though the book also takes in a more interior journey as Tom, who speaks to us in the first person, gradually reveals other aspects of his family life, especially his relationship with troubled older son Daniel.
At first, Daniel is only mentioned fleetingly, Tom more immediately concerned with wife Lorna and 10-year-old daughter Lilly, who are back in their Belfast home and keeping themselves informed of Tom's slow progress via his mobile phone.
Bit by bit, though, Tom discloses more of his past life, not least his courtship of Lorna, who had been due to marry a thuggishly threatening local businessman with paramilitary links - "someone who, if he was to step out in front of my car right now, would see me press the accelerator rather than the brakes".
We hear, too, of his career as a professional photographer, mainly of weddings and other formal functions, though in general he thinks of himself as "probably someone no one really notices very much" - indeed, possibly not even his immediate family who, in his own telling, seem to take him somewhat for granted.
Still, he's a kind man and when, during his arduous journey to Sunderland, a motorist loses control of her car and injures herself in a gully, he comforts her while he calls for emergency services to take her to hospital and waits with her until the ambulance arrives.
But the spectre of Daniel constantly niggles away at his composure and eventually we learn why. The boy he had adored since babyhood for his outgoing and fearless ways had grown into a remote and unknowable adolescent. "There were times when I wondered if I was his father," he recalls, while also tormenting himself with the thought that "if I had been a better father..."
But Daniel, addicted to drink and drugs and mostly absent from the family home, was thieving to support his habit, and when Tom came upon him stealing cameras and other objects from the house, he banished him - though not telling Lorna why their son then permanently vanished from their lives.
Tom then spent the next few months hanging around Belfast's backstreets in the hopes of finding his son, only to be told by a former girlfriend of Daniel that he had started hanging around with the wrong sort of people and had "started to do the wrong drugs. Drugs that rub you up against bad people and drugs that aren't about fun but something else". And finally Tom discovers Daniel's whereabouts, but by then it's all too late.
This, then, is the story of a lost child and a parent's guilt about decisions that seemed to be justifiable at the time but that merely led the way to irreversible tragedy. But it's also about the search for redemption, as it is in other David Park novels - notably The Truth Commissioner (2008), where the personal and the political conjoined and sometimes collided in a story about attempting peace and reconciliation in a still troubled North.
The political is barely mentioned in the new novel, beyond a wry reference to a Belfast in which "we've made the most of our past troubles and package them for tourists in soft-focused bus and taxi tours of murals and the peace wall".
Instead, its concerns are firmly on one man and his search for meaning and solace. I was reminded of Mike McCormack's much-praised novel Solar Bones, which was also about a man's search for identity and purpose in an indifferent world. Park's novel is less ambitious and much less experimental, but in its quieter way it's no less telling.