Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park


It was Reading Matters’ announcement that it won the 2019 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year that took me to this book. I had read Park’s book The Light of Amsterdam in 2012 and greatly admired it and now I want to read his other books.

The tone of this short book is claustrophobic:  a man named Tom set out to pick up his son from college after a snowstorm that closed the airports. He leaves by ferry from Belfast and drives through Scotland to a town on the east coast of England. He is enclosed in the small space of his car, stocked with food, coffee, and music; the snow limits how often he can pull off to make phone calls. He is alone with his thoughts then, and the book takes us along two strains, something from the past and the now. This duality is foretold on the ferry when he thinks,

And suddenly everything feels intensely strange as the present slips into the silent place where memory and consciousness filter into each other to make something new. So for just a few seconds I’m mindful of all the other people who’ve made this same journey and the passengers around me are replaced by a silent collage of the blurred faces of those who have gone before….

The first strain is his review of a tragedy in his life that begins with vague references and gradually is expanded  to a full accounting of the events. I will leave it at that.

The “now” is the journey he is making to pick up his son. With interest I followed his route on Google maps and read about the landmarks he noted. There’s Gretna Green near the Scotland side of the border with England, notable to me from Jane Austen as the location of weddings of those too young to marry in England without their parents’ consent. He mentions Hadrian’s Wall, begun in AD 122 which marked the northernmost border of the Roman empire and was 73 miles long. It remains of great interest and tourists visit by a path runs along the structure.

Though he has good reason to hurry along, Tom stops when he sees a car has gone off into the ditch. He discovers a woman unable to get out of the car or even get to her cellphone to call for help. He does so and stays with her until help arrives.

As he gets close to his son’s college, he makes a stop to see and photograph “this Angel that rises high above everything and whose wings exercise a dominion over all below.” I was unaware of the Angel of the North, a gigantic and striking sculpture built in 1998. While he is here, he receives a phone message from the woman he helped that she has no broken bones and will be fine. It is here that Tom makes another step toward making the tragedy an endurable part of his “now.” Tom was able to help the woman he encountered, but not to stop the tragedy. The beauty of this book is breathtaking.

David Park, Travelling in a Strange Land, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018, 165 pages. Available at the UVa library and through Amazon.

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