Author: David Park
Published: November 13, 2012 by Bloomsbury
First lines: “The ink was black, the paper the same shade of blue as a bird’s egg he had found a week before. In their balanced elegance the capital G and B mirrored each other. Unlike most of the soccer signatures he collected which were largely indecipherable hieroglyphics–the bored scribbles of fleeing stars–this name was readable and perfectly formed.”
Rating: Not bad.
(Electronic galley provided by Bloomsbury)
Reading The Light of Amsterdam was like reading a good painting. It was really beautiful if not very exciting.
The story follows three different characters from Northern Ireland who all travel to Amsterdam for their own reasons: Alan, a divorced college professor who gets stuck taking his skulking teenage son with him to a Bob Dylan concert; Karen, a working-class single mother who is attending her daughter’s hen party (for the American readers, that’s the UK equivalent of a bachelorette party); and Marion, an older woman who goes on holiday with her husband. The characters all have their own past events, regrets, and scars, and each of their traveling companions is someone with whom they have lost touch. The characters are all interesting in that they are realistic, and it’s easy to find yourself in them. None of them are particularly heroic, but they do all grow and change.
One of my favorite things about this book was the descriptive writing style and the use of imagery. The motif of lights popped up constantly, but the descriptions were effective and they never got old or repetitive for me; it always seemed appropriate. Here’s a passage that I particularly liked:
She passed lots of groups, mostly of young women with their cigarettes held aloft like fire-flies in the night and shiny mobile phones pressed to their ears. There was the chattering clatter of their heels and despite the cold their primped bodies on show with their excited voices breaking against each other before shattering into laughter again and again.
There’s a rhythm and a poetry to the words, and the images are gorgeous.
That being said, there was one thing about the writing style that annoyed me. The point of view jumped between the three characters with little or no transition, and I found it disorienting. Galleys often lose some of the formatting that appears in commercial e-books, so perhaps some of the space breaks were omitted. Still, even if there had been space breaks, the author seldom used the characters’ names, instead just referring to them as “he” or “she” from the time they entered the scene, and the only way I even knew the characters’ names was from the rare instances when other characters used them.
I think some readers would complain about the lack of action or happy endings that our culture prefers, but I liked it for what it was. There were no life-and-death struggles or thrilling high notes, but those wouldn’t have suited the kind of story that was being told. As I mentioned above, the characters were normal people undergoing their own melancholy self-discoveries and learning how to communicate with the people in their lives in an unfamiliar setting. If there was a theme, it’s that life never quite works out the way you expect it to.
With the name of the setting in the title, I would have expected it to almost be like another character, but it mainly served as an opportunity for the characters to escape from their normal lives and take a look at themselves from a different perspective. They went to bars, restaurants, and coffee shops, and they found their way into the Rijksmuseum and the red light district, too. But the main focus was on the characters rather than the setting.
Overall, The Light of Amsterdam was not a bad read. If you’re looking for something fast-paced that will keep you on the edge of your seat, this probably isn’t for you. However, if you enjoy good poetic writing that reflects the bittersweet beauty of real life, then you’ll probably want to check this out.