Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

"Gods & Angels" by David Park (Bloomsbury, 2016)

13 stories, mostly in the 20-30 page range. In "Learning to Swim" a university lecturer new to the city falls in with some other middle-aged men at the Health Club. One suspects that the title will have more than a literal meaning. Two-thirds of the way in we're told what by then we already know -

There were so many questions but something - perhaps it was fear - stopped me from asking and it felt as if I had stumbled by chance into a world far beyond mine whose existence was governed by rules and principles of which I had only the most tenuous grasp (p.14)

Then at the end, when he's thrown into a pool

And this is how I have come to remember them and everything that happened during those months - finding myself floundering in that strange element of a city, their faces and voices increasingly blurred as if they too were cast adrift in some world that was partly of their own making, but in part of things they didn't fully understand (p.21)

The story and characters were interesting enough, but it doesn't quite deliver.

"Boxing Day" has some nice touches and observation. A 17 year-old boy is being driven to his mother by his father. The boy's reluctant to go - he likes living with his father and a new family.

'Why do I need to keep doing this?' I asked, turning off the radio to signal my seriousness.
'Because it's the right thing to do and because when all's said and done she's still your mother.'

Sentences like "I walked to the window. The sea seemed locked into a stupor, slumbering in some forlorn memory of its former motion" ensure we don't forget the mood. Not for the first time, she falls asleep on the couch during his stay. He looks through the old Christmas decorations. She's given him a present of a magnifying glass. He uses it to study her scalp. Later "There was a coldness eddying off a sea that still looked bored by its own motion as it broke lifelessly on the single beach". He steals a photo when his father picks him up (his mother still asleep) because he doesn't plan to return though he's noticed for the first time scars on her wrist. They play "The Very Best of The Smiths" on the way home, a compromise.

"The Kiss" intersplices a Caravaggio episode with some modern life. "Keeping Watch" also uses juxta-position. A cop on look-out duties ("The mist-raddled morning air clings to my face and crimps the skin so it feels as if I'm wearing a mask", p.66) also sneaks into the house of his ex-wife and son. "The Strong Silent Type" features a first-person male shop mannequin - "Then the light goes out and I'm left with nothing but the thin sift of dreams where as always my companion reaches out her hand to meet mine and when we embrace I feel the flow of her warmth press against me and in that sudden flush our mouths blossom with words" (p.76). "The Bloggers" starts with "The divorce didn't go well, as might have been expected from how badly the marriage went." (p.107). It has entertaining parts within a predictable narrative arc. "Skype" is uneventful, set on a Scottish/Scandinavian fishing island where the children keep leaving - "The desire to share the little they have been given by children children ensures the word Skype has become as common as references to the weather in the islanders' exchanges" (p.141). "Heatwave" is amusing; an avalanche of little failures.

In "Man Overboard" some lads ("stranded in the wrong side of forty" (p.188) - one of them, Douggie, depressed) leave their wives for an angling weekend. They're not sure whether they should have invited Douggie, though they're nice to him. Duggie jumps off a boat. Suicide? No, he swims to an island - "'I wanted to know what the water felt like. Wanted to be on the island,' Douggie said" (p.197). "Gecko" features a couple married for 25 years, childless. For their silver wedding anniversary they go on an arctic holiday with no guarantee of seeing the Northern Lights. They're still in love "It was too cold to linger long and when they went inside their travel tiredness encouraged them to bed. They both knew they should made love and so they helped each other into the needed responses and afterwards in the silence they listened briefly to the fire's final surrender before they too fell asleep." (p.212). "'We've always been sensible,' she said but it wasn't clear if she meant it as a compliment or a criticism." (p.218).

"Old Fool" (the longest story but not the best) is about a widowered charity shop volunteer who tries to help a young mother customer, Georgie. They exchange life stories. He does odd jobs for her - "That was how we became part of each other's lives and like the shop you don't need to be an expert to grasp the need it fulfilled for me although below the surface there were occasions when I was conscious of other complications of feeling" (p.259). They sleep together, once, after which he realises he's gone too far. He notices she's wearing a bracelet that he'd bought for his wife in Barcelona. He'd donated it, and Georgie had stolen it from the shop.

"Crossing the river" has Charon as its first-person narrator. There's competition from "the young ones with their customised and pimped carriers, all glittering with technology and toys, their sat navs and their entertainment centres". He rows illegal immigrants over. His last passenger of the day is his slightly demented mother.

I feel for the people in these stories despite the hint of heart-string-pulling.

Other reviews

  • John Boyne (David Park [is] a writer’s writer, a creator of provocative, light-footed novels of understated sophistication that deserve to reach a wider audience than they have to date ... At its best, as in the second story, Boxing Day, Park proves adept at scrutinising that most elusive and disquieting institution of Irish life – the family ... Less successful is The Strong Silent Type ... Similarly, the opening story, Learning To Swim, which should pack a punch and set the reader up with excitement for what is to come in the stories ahead, is something of a damp squib)
  • Kirkus reviews
  • Sarah Ferguson (Park is a skilled craftsman who serves up some memorable passages, yet several of the entries in this collection seem too slight, proving just how delicate and elusive the alchemy of the short story form can be.)

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