Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park – Book Review
By Barney Bardsley
There is, at the very start of this book, a strange and haunting passage. “I am entering the frozen land, although to which country it belongs I cannot say.” What follows is unclear: is this real, is it a dream? There is deep snow, a lake, a house with stairs that must be climbed – the hint of a mythical dead son – and a question: “What is it brings me on this journey?” So the scene is set: a background tension and refrain to the whole book is established.
What follows, seems, at first, a simple and straightforward narrative. A man, Tom, sets off from Northern Ireland, in the snow, to fetch his poorly son home from university in Sunderland. All flights to and from the UK are stopped. Car and ferry – and a long drive through hazardous conditions, across the chilly wintry roads to the North East of England – are the only option.
There is much detail about the preparation for this journey – provisions, medicines and cold weather gear – and a good deal of anxiety from Tom’s wife, Lorna, and from the man himself, as he sets off alone. (His wife stays with their young daughter at home.) And that is to be expected, of course – there is a stranded son to be rescued, and real jeopardy to be endured in the process. But there is more to it, than meets the eye: a darker and more complex tale, that lies hidden beneath the surface snow.
The reader gradually gets sucked into Tom’s inner world, as he inches his way forward on his perilous drive. It is a suffocating world, trapped in a snowed-up car, with the loneliness alleviated only by encounters with other lonely individuals along the way – on the ferry, in a crashed car, that has veered off into a ditch, at wayside cafes and petrol stations. Tom does his best, both to help others who are struggling in the snow, and to keep his own spirits up, as he labours on, towards his stranded son.
But the cracks soon begin to show. He becomes obsessed with the disembodied female voice of the SatNav, and – worse, much worse – the imagined voice of another son, a boy who went missing from their family home, never to return.
This tortuous journey of Tom’s, it transpires, is less rescue mission, more a personal calvary: and the atmosphere becomes ever more oppressive, the further Tom drives, and the more he reveals of the family secrets – in particular his own – that have sunk like a stone, deep into his anguished conscience.
Indirectly, he feels responsible for his second son’s disappearance. This guilt is almost impossible to assuage. He calls out to his missing son. “Sometimes I think the fear is permanent, like it’s stamped indelibly somewhere deep in our DNA and no matter what we do or will do in the future we’ll never be free of it.”
It is a difficult task, to stay inside one man’s head, as a writer, and within a confined space – the car – for a long period of time, without straining for effect, in order to keep the tension mounting and mounting. Sometimes the language does indeed become unnecessarily overwrought, but overall David Park succeeds brilliantly, in sucking us into his oppressive, tunnel-vision narrative.
The final scenes, where he leaves an offering for his lost son and then turns to the last leg of his travels, to attend to the son still living, are weighted with sorrow and grace. Anyone, parent or not, will feel the difficult heartbeat of family – its deep failures and deeper loves – thudding off the pages as the book comes to its sorrowful end.
How we long for Tom’s family finally to be reunited, one with the other, but he spares us the salvation of arrival. We never meet the waiting son, we can never hear again from the one who has gone. No happy end here – but a striving towards one, at least. Because Tom will never give up, until his journey reaches its conclusion, and his remaining son really does come home.
‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ by David Park is published by Bloomsbury, £12.99 hardback