I felt like reading a Christmas book and was attracted by David Park's The Light of Amsterdam with it's blue Delft cover art. This is a novel about three sets of characters from Belfast who visit Amsterdam just before Christmas. All are anxious or depressed and find a change of heart and new resolution from their time away.
First off, there's Alan who teaches art at a university. He's recently divorced and feeling sorry for himself for making a mess of his marriage and because he's been told by his boss to improve his act. To top it all off, he has to take his teenage son, Jack, with him to Amsterdam because his ex is going to Spain with her new partner, whom Jack can't stand. Jack is a sort of Goth/Emo who is making a mess of school and dabbling in drugs and self-harm. How is Alan supposed to talk Jack into going to the Bob Dylan concert which is the main purpose of his visit?
Then there's Karen, who has low self-esteem perhaps because she works as a cleaner in a rest home, has been 'asked' about the missing bracelet belonging to one of the patients, and is struggling to pay for her share of her daughter's wedding. This is the daughter she raised single-handed, after the father dumped her when she was three months' pregnant. She is going to Amsterdam with her daughter's hen party and she is particularly unhappy about having to dress up as an Indian squaw for the duration.
Richard and Marion are a couple with grown-up children who are taking a well-earned break from their busy garden centre. They plan to visit the flower markets and can afford a nice hotel. However Marion has been worried that Richard is drifting away from her, and imagines all kinds of goings-on between her husband and one of the pretty Polish girls they employ at the shop. She decides to take a bold step while they are in Amsterdam to help rekindle their relationship.
So none of our main characters are very happy, in fact the book begins in a rather gloomy fashion, perhaps reflecting the setting of Belfast in December. Once they arrive in Amsterdam, the weather is unseasonably warm and the characters slowly thaw in an enchanting city where anything seems possible. Karen and Richard make a small, tentative connection, while Richard and Marion are seen occasionally in the distance. But mostly the three main characters are shown through their thoughts - thoughts that are often going round in circles of anxiety, with odd bursts of hope and determination.
As you can see, this is not a book where a lot happens. It has a particularly slow beginning. However David Parks is a great creator of atmosphere and builds drama and tension cleverly towards a mildly cheerful ending. Amsterdam shines through his prose. But most of all, he has huge empathy for his characters who are ordinary folk the reader can identify with. I don't know if the book was released just in time for Christmas, but for anyone going away to recharge the batteries, this is a timely reminder of of how getting away from it all can give you a bit of perspective. Which reminds me: there is some nice stuff about art as well.