Thursday, July 5, 2012

Summer Review 2012. Kathleen McMahon and David Park

Summer Review.
Published in Books Ireland. June 2012

This is How it Ends. Kathleen McMahon.
Published by Sphere.
ISBN: 9781847445551

Addie is in a bad place. At thirty nine, she's lost a baby. She’s also lost her boyfriend, and as good as lost her job. She's an architect, and as the recession has started to bite, work has dried up. To add to her troubles, her truculent father, Hugh, has broken both wrists, and she's moved into a Sandymount basement to keep an eye on him.

Always a sufferer from melancholia, Addie fills her days as best she can. She loves walking the beach with Lola, her rescue dog, throwing a ball, singing, loudly, along to her i-pod. Her other passion is swimming. It helps keep her head right.

When Bruno first contacts the family, saying he's over from America to research his roots, their hearts sink, and they do their best to avoid him, but soon Addie's attitude softens, and the two start a romantic entanglement.

But is this just a holiday fling? Bruno arrived in Ireland having lost his job in Lehman Brothers. He has a return ticket, but, a passionate democrat, he's vowed to stay in Ireland should Obama fail to win the election.

In the future, he tells Addie he'd like to become a writer. He'll write about an American, researching his roots, who falls madly in love with an Irishwoman. When Addie interrupts him, saying that the hero will then go back to the states, Bruno says,

“How do you know? How can you be so sure that is how it ends?”

It would be unfair of me to give away the end of McMahon’s novel, but the end of the writing of it is now well known. Thanks to the legendry agent Marianne Gun O’Connor, the manuscript became the sensation of last year’s London Book Fair, selling in a two book deal worth €684,000 euro. It’s being hyped to the skies, as the book for our times.

I worry, as a reviewer, about the effect of such a hard sell. The advance copy arrived with accolades from eight of the team in the office at Little Brown. The cover stated, ‘this is the book you’ve been waiting to read.’ That puts me, immediately on the defensive.

I read it back in February, having just read two novels that were so exceptionally good, I suspect they’ll remain the best I’ll read in 2012. I quite enjoyed the McMahon book. I liked the complicated, yet tender relationship between Addie and her father. Too well aware of his faults, she can’t bear it when he’s accused of medical negligence.

Slow it places, the pace picks up towards the end. There are some beautifully perceptive moments. I loved reading about Della, Addie’s idiosyncratic sister, who, living in the chaos of life with four small children, feels a twinge of envy for Addie. I loved the dog, and the picture built up of Addie’s daily walks. It’s a sweet story; it’s beautifully written, and it improved on a second reading. But it felt vaguely familiar. And, given the publicity hype, I’d been expecting something more.

The Light of Amsterdam. David Park. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978 1 4088 – 2136-7

Alan teaches Art at a Belfast University. But his career is stagnant. There are hints that it might not last. To add to his problems, he’s newly divorced, and finds his teenage son impossible to relate to. Karen is a single mum who works as a cleaner in an old people’s home. Her daughter, Shannon, is engaged, and intent on spending money that’s hard to come by. Middle-aged Marion is perpetually anxious. She fears that her husband, Richard, plans to be unfaithful. It’s December, and these diverse people are about to set off for Amsterdam.

That summary sounds like the basis for a chick lit novel. Not one by David Park; the Belfast teacher and writer responsible for such lauded novels as The Truth Commissioner and Swallowing the Sun. I adore Park’s writing, and was worried he might have lost the plot.

The novel opens with George Best’s funeral. Scanning the crowd, Alan wonders if he’s the only bystander who remembers the genius of Best’s playing. At a juncture in his life, Alan is remembering the past; he’s planned to see another hero, Bob Dylan in concert in Amsterdam. But he’s anxious when his ex exhorts him to take the monosyllabic Jack along for the ride.

Karen is nervous about her trip, too. She’s accompanying Shannon on her hen weekend, and must dress, she’s told, as an Indian tomahawk. Marion, going for a ‘romantic break,’ fears she has nothing left in common with her confident husband. These early scenes, flitting between the protagonists, dragged rather. But the minute they all reach Amsterdam, the City, along with Park’s prose, starts to weave its familiar magic.

It’s not all sweetness. Karen, who wants only to find the City’s heart, gets a jolt from the past. And through that, she has to accept how utterly self-obsessed her daughter has becomes. There are some good moments for Alan and Jack; notably when Jack proves his worth at karaoke, by singing, beautifully and unselfconsciously. But the Bob Dylan concert, the supposed highlight of the trip, causes the biggest let down for his once ardent fan.

In Park’s previous novels he took large subjects. The Truth Commissioner explored the possibility of reconciliation in the North; Swallowing the Sun looked at grief. The Light of Amsterdam is a gentler book. There are no big revelations or dominant characters. But it’s this very subtlety that makes the book shine.

The three protagonists do experience some change. As they explore the city, some cycling in the park, others finding those magically hidden corners, they come to terms with the past, and start to tentatively tread towards the future. The novel has left me with a desire to visit Amsterdam, and, more pertinently, it’s left me with a greater grasp on humanity.

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