The Light of Amsterdam by David Park
For North Americans looking for a week away Amsterdam is the perfect choice – you will discover a city where it is easy to walk for hours taking in the cityscape, with museums and art galleries to fill your days. For anyone in the British Isles it is possible to go for a weekend, a quick cheap flight, a few days in a European city and home again in time for work on Monday.
While living in Germany when I was a teenager, Amsterdam was only a short train trip away and I often went for weekends. I returned for the first time in many years in 2012, for a winter week away. As I read the new novel by David Park, The Light of Amsterdam, I could see clearly the streets and canals of the city.
Amsterdam may be a tourist destination but it is also a living city – there are people, many many of them on bicycles traveling at great speed and fearless. There are immigrants and street markets, and tourists – some like us there for the culture but a great many only there for drinking and carousing. The famous red light district in my teenage years was a quiet neighbourhood with women sitting discreetly on a little chairs in little windows. Now it is all shockingly blatant – one large storefront window that I thought contained a mannequin waiting to be dressed startled me when the “mannequin” moved and I realized this was a woman so made up – all over – that I was both astounded and made sad that this was what any woman would chose to do, for any reason. We had planned to avoid the red light district but found ourselves there by mistake on the way to the train station, walking uncomfortably along with the roving bands of what I might unkindly describe as soccer hooligans. A city both beautiful and ugly.
So, on this particular weekend in Amsterdam, it is late fall and we have a group of weekenders arriving on a flight from Belfast. There is a couple, long married, perhaps in transition. They have worked together all their married life, established a successful business but are they now drifting apart or will they find a new way into the future together this weekend away? There is a father and son, father hoping for some bonding, son plugged into his music, in retreat. The father’s foolish affair with a student lost him his marriage and his home, but he hopes he has not forever lost his son. The father booked this weekend to attend a Bob Dylan concert, bringing the son was suggested by a worried mother. Then – the “hen” party – a hellish idea and a hellish experience for the poor mother of the bride who reluctantly agreed to come on this weekend of binge drinking and hysterics. Sounds awful - but The Light of Amsterdam is such a wonderful novel.
We meet these people on the flight to Amsterdam - they notice each other, on the flight and later as they cross paths in Amsterdam. We learn about their past, their sorrows and their dreams. A father thinks about what he would like to say to his struggling son, “don’t be frightened of uncertainty and confusion, it’s our natural state”. A mother quietly whispers, “They break your heart’s don’t they.” Talking about their grown children.
On this weekend in Amsterdam you will think about your work, your marriage, your children, your own needs and desires, and you will come to care for the other tourists you meet so briefly among the museums, the canals and the streets of this beautiful city that welcomes and charms in spite of the hen parties and those looking for only sex and intoxication.
As The Light of Amsterdam comes to an end, our weekenders return to their homes, and to the story of the rest of their lives, beginning even as they leave the airport upon their return.