Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 26, 2018

The Light of Amsterdam, by David Park

I’m not sure how I came across this title: it might have been via #6Degrees of Separation…


The Light of Amsterdam is the story of three separate people whose lives are in a bit of a muddle, nothing out of the ordinary, but still the kind of issues that can make for sustained unhappiness.  For different reasons they take a break from ordinary life in Belfast and spend a weekend in Amsterdam, a city that symbolises openness and freedom from the routine strictures of life.

Alan is an old-school university lecturer not keeping up with the new demands for accountability.  He is divorced and regretting it, especially since his ex-wife is taking up with someone new.  He’s also not coping very well with his taciturn adolescent son Jack, but he has high hopes that they can bond a bit better over a Bob Dylan concert in Amsterdam.

Karen, a single mother of is forty, is heading for Amsterdam on a hen’s weekend with her daughter Shannon.  She has had to bring up Shannon alone because her boyfriend churlishly deserted her after first promising to marry her, so that by the time he left a terse note in her letterbox, it was too late for her to terminate.  She can ill-afford this hen’s weekend but she’s done her best never to deny Shannon anything… She has worked two jobs including extra shifts at an aged care centre to raise the money for what promises to be a showy wedding.  Shannon, as the plot soon reveals, is a shallow sort of person, obsessed with appearances, and her friends are crass and vulgar.

Then there’s middle-aged Marian celebrating her birthday in Amsterdam, a gift from her dull but worthy husband Richard.  They have raised a family and built a successful nursery business, but Marian is having a kind of mid-life crisis because her sex life has all but dried up and she’s convinced herself that it’s only a matter of time before Richard strays, possibly with one of the Polish guest workers, a blonde called Anka.

Alan makes Karen’s acquaintance when she clutches his hand in terror on the plane.  It’s her first flight, and she is petrified.  Despite the social and intellectual gulf between them, they chat a little bit, and they later bond over the travails of parenthood when they bump into each other again on the streets of Amsterdam.  Karen has had an almighty row with Shannon over what she interprets as a monstrous betrayal, and Alan is on his own because his son Jack has flounced off in anger for not dissimilar reasons.  For these parents, confronting the selfishness of their children and recognising the watershed in their relationships is crucial to developing a mature relationship for the future.

Woman Reading a Letter by Vermeer (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Karen had not really wanted to visit the Rijksmuseum but she was conscious of having promised Mrs Hemmings at the aged care home that she would.  Most of the paintings mean nothing much to her (!) but she is very taken by Vermeer’s ‘Woman Reading a Letter’ (1663-4) because she relates it to her own experience receiving the letter than ruined her life.  Her artless question about how the painter achieved the light in the painting challenges Alan because it forces him to recognise his own snobbery about her clothes, her mispronunciation of Rijksmuseum and her admission that she was a cleaner, not a nurse as he had first thought.  However, Marian’s decision to use this trip to Amsterdam to deal with ‘the inevitable’ results in a  bizarre plot line that is not successfully credible.

However, the focus of the novel is not on some startling epiphany that will change these characters’ lives, but rather a forensic examination of their relationships and how they came to be the way they are.  There’s no romantic ending (which was a relief) but there are fresh starts to light the way.

This is the first novel I have read from Northern Ireland, and I found it an interesting experience because while I could imagine the scenes in Amsterdam (because I’ve been there – and braved the bicycles too) I found that I had no concept of Belfast at all, other than dreadful images from the Troubles.  I subsequently spent an enjoyable time looking at Google images to banish what’s in my visual memory, and now I’m wondering why I’ve never been there…

Cathy reviewed it at 746 Books, Kim reviewed it at Reading Matters and there’s a review too at Kevin from Canada, reminding me yet again how much we miss him.


Author: David Park
Title: The Light of Amsterdam
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2013, first published 2012
ISBN: 9781408831540
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Light of Amsterdam



  1. Was it my review of his latest book, Travelling in a Strange Land, that introduced you to him? You left a comment to say you’d reserved Light of Amsterdam at the library. Regardless, great to read your review. I should put together a Northern Irish reading list, shouldn’t I? Though I’m afraid most of them are about The Troubles…


    • Ah ha! That’s it, that’s what triggered my interest:) See how influential you are!
      I have one other book from NI on my shelves: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore, recommended by Jonathan. So yes, a reading list would be good:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t read that many, but here’s a link to those reviewed on my blog:
        I would highly recommend This Human Season by Louise Dean even though she’s English because it’s such a profound and balanced view of The Troubles. I also have fond memories of One by One in the Darkness by Deidre Madden which looks at the outfall on people, especially women and children, seemingly removed from the strife.


        • Sold, I just found a copy of This Human Season at Fishpond for under $10!
          And I also discovered the categories section of your blog includes Settings, after all the author names:)


  2. Sounds like my sort of read. The description on Amazon isn’t appealing and sounds contrived by your review fleshes out the possibilities.


    • It must be so hard to write blurbs for relationship novels that don’t sound the same as every other one. Even my description: three people, three ordinary troubles, it doesn’t sound much. But it’s very absorbing reading all the same…


  3. I read this one when it was first released – my only memory was that I enjoyed it.
    I visited Belfast about 15 years ago – it’s a fascinating place. My lasting memory is a cab driver sharing Belfast trivia – apparently Belfast has/ had the very best knee surgeons in the world (because they had to do so many reconstructions after people were knee-capped during the Troubles!).
    I have a book on my shelf that I haven’t read in its entirety yet (it’s 1600+ pages) called Lost Lives – it chronicles the life of every single person who died as a result of the Troubles. It’s devastating.


    • Wow, Lost Lives, that would be hard to read and not just because of its length.
      What I found so interesting about my inability to visualise today’s Belfast is that of course there are lots of places I haven’t been to, including most notably the US (because my heart specialist says not to. I can’t get travel insurance, and it would bankrupt us if anything happened there). But I can visualise dozens of American cities because I’ve seen them on TV. It made me realise that we see nothing in our media about Northern Ireland now that it’s at peace. That’s a really sad indictment on our media, I realise.


  4. […] one book set in Northern Ireland – but that was nothing like as confronting as this one.  David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam (2012) is a comparatively recent book which makes no mention of the conflict known as the Troubles […]


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