“I am entering the frozen land, although to which country it belongs I cannot say.”
David Park’s novel Travelling in a Strange Land is a brief story about fathers and sons, memory and regret, told from the point of view of a middle-aged man, Tom, travelling from Belfast to Sunderland to collect his son Luke from university at Christmas, while his wife Lorna and daughter Lilly wait at home.
There is a snowstorm and the entire country is blanketed in white, making Tom’s journey slow and at times arduous: ‘the miles of snow-seamed roads unwinding to that empty house in Sunderland.’ Very little happens – he gives an elderly woman a lift because she has heavy bags; he helps another whose car has veered off the road; he listens to music as he drives; he talks with Lorna, Lilly and Luke on the phone – but for all that, the novel is riveting. There is much that is covered by the snow: old secrets, old betrayals.
maybe it makes me feel good, that I’m doing something mildly heroic, and as someone who spends his life taking photographs of things that don’t particularly interest him, there isn’t much opportunity to feel heroic
Tom is on a journey inward, one filled with memories and regrets, mostly to do with their other son, Daniel, their first-born, a wayward teenager who took drugs and dropped out, and who finally disappeared from their lives.
In fact, it could be argued that the novel is a riff on the Nativity story (which the book mentions here and there, often focusing on Joseph, the man entrusted to raise a child that isn’t his – there’s a brief moment when Tom considers that Daniel might not be his son): a journey made in December guided not by a star but by Satnav – in an attempt by Tom to rebirth his dead son (or at least find consolation for his grief) – or to put it another way, to make a place for Joseph in the story.
Mary becomes the heroine, the object of veneration, and Joseph fades into the shadows for ever. But I remember enough to recall that the story describes him as a good man and, although we have no way of knowing if he was a good father to a child who wasn’t fully ever his, I believe he must have been … if we could, we should bring him out of the shadows and make him part of this celebration of a child born in a manger, let some of the lights that decorate our homes burn for him.
As Tom is driving alone with only the music and his thoughts to accompany him, everything he sees and hears reminds him of something else. He thinks of the Pennines as the Himalayas, which makes him think of George Mallory and a photo that he carried to the summit of Everest (photos again). He passes a sign for Hadrian’s Wall and thinks about the Berlin Wall and the Peace Walls in Belfast; he passes Lockerbie and thinks about terrorism and the Troubles (Northern Ireland’s sense of communal grief, communal deaths, shared history and atrocities are all very much lying under the surface of the novel)
In prose terms, Park’s style is at first quite simple; it’s only in the novel’s closing pages that he lets loose with writing that is lyrical and graceful. Tom’s memory of Daniel summons the boy at several moments, seated beside him in the car, and Park freely moves between the present-day action (conversation with strangers, telephone calls to Lorna and Lilly, the voice of the satnav in the car), and scenes from the past as well as imagined dialogues.
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.
Daniel “comes silently so I never know the time or place but on this journey I’ve been waiting for him … It’s often when I’m thinking of Luke that he comes. He’s wearing his black hoody with the hood up but it can’t stop me registering the pallor of his skin, the dark circles under his eyes.” Daniel torments him, saying that Tom never told him he loved him.
I go to tell him that if I didn’t love him I’d give him the money, give him whatever he asked, but he’s already gone and all I can do is hold the steering wheel a little tighter, turn the music up louder
… he’s talking about Luke and how we’re always killing the fatted calf for him … He’s not the prodigal son and you are the one who went away from us and we always wanted you to come back and every night we left the chain off the front door and your mother put warmth in your bed on winter nights so don’t try to make us feel guilty about your brother because we don’t love him more or less than you.
Passing a sign for Lockerbie prompts Tom to ruminate on the question of truth. His memory of Daniel (and of the guilt he feels about his son’s death) is something he feels he has to preserve, to prevent it from becoming just another ‘narrative’ in history that can be disputed or ignored.
… when you’ve lived through a period of the Troubles it gradually begins to dawn on you that we’ve given up on facts. Partly because they’re in dispute but mostly because they’re deemed unhelpful to a future based on agreement. So now there’s only what they call narratives and we’re allowed to have our different ones, even if I think my narrative is the one that’s true and yours is make-believe … I know I have to hold Daniel’s story close, not let anyone else find a different narrative, impose a different reading, because I’m the one who needs to make sense of it.
Tom is a photographer, although as he points out, he’s no Ansel Adams. He works as a wedding photographer or doing contracts for calendars for building societies and the like. During a quiet moment when he stands looking at a bank of trees, he wonders:
If I had my camera I would take a photograph but wonder if I could even get close to capturing what is hidden in the moment. and I hear a voice, my personal satnav, telling me that despite all those hopes I harbour and have always harboured about what I could do with the camera, I’m not up to it.
Photography is a recurring theme in the novel – just as the snow-covered landscape is a blank, so is a photo in the moments before it develops.
People don’t understand photographs. They think that they always freeze the moment in time but the truth is they set the moment free from it and what the camera has caught steps forever in its onward roll. So it will always exist, always live just as it was in that precise second, with the same smile or scowl, the same colour of sky, the same fall of light and shade, the very same thought or pulse of the heart.
Denis Thorpe’s photo of the hallway of the painter Lowry the day after his death – “the photo is about absence, an opened space and a stillness flowing into it, homing in on the relics of someone who once was but is no more” – is returned to several times. There is of course an absence too in Tom’s house
As a photographer Tom looks at the world from a distance. Even at Daniel’s birth Lorna has to ask him to put the camera down.
I feel the inexplicable confusion of holding your first child and struggling to understand your connection with this new life and your responsibility for it … The hands are most incredible, sculpted perfect and made from still-wet clay so when I touch one with my finger I’m frightened it might puddle out of shape and then they tighten on mine and nothing has ever felt like that before or since.
Artist Sonya Whitefield has created a personal response to the novel here.
I come to understand the truth of what Ansel Adams said: that you don’t make a photograph just with a camera, but that you bring to the act all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved … I realise the city is a palimpsest, where behind the bland uniformity of chain-store shopfronts is an older and still enduring glimpse of what once was.
The other art-form that is mentioned frequently is music. “Music is important in our house and its absence in the last few months has been as dark a marker as anything else.” and Tom has eclectic taste: REM, Van Morrison, John Martyn, Nick Cave, as well as music he knows his son Luke likes: Great Lake Swimmers, Ash, The National, The Smiths.
There’s a Spotify playlist of the novel’s music here
Park’s novel is contemporary, with references to TV like The Great British Bake-Off, Ice Road Truckers, and Game of Thrones but also to current events (Syria, refugees, the drowned toddler on the beach in Turkey), but most of the events in Tom’s mind take place in the past.
David Park has written a wonderfully moving novel about grief, parents, childhood, memory and loss. Highly recommended.