Advertisement
Books

Travelling in a Strange Land, David Park: Johnny Ruin, Dan Dalton

David Park has written a troubled tale about haunted families which will leave its print on modern Irish literature

Snow is a recurring leitmotif in Irish literature. Its ability to turn the familiar into foreign, to beautify the ugly and silence the noisy, is a gift to all poets; but as Northern Irish writer David Park points out in his new novel, Travelling in a Strange Land, it is particularly effective when writing about a newly branded city with a dark past. Snow in Belfast becomes a kind of dream-catching fairy dust in Park’s tale, creating a near mythical landscape where memory is as crucial as a sat nav, though far less comforting.

The situation however, is a standard human one. Tom’s son is stranded, sick, in Sunderland, and it’s his dad’s job is to pick him up and bring him home to Belfast for Christmas. Tom stocks the car with flasks, a torch, a spade, a sleeping bag – the average survival kit for a sole driver undertaking a long drive over treacherous terrain. ‘We have to get him home’ his wife repeats, over and over. There is an opportunity for paternal heroism in his mission.

Belfast is a palimpsest rich with allegory

So off we go, keeping Tom company as his brief encounters with fellow travellers are increasingly punctuated with tugging old memories – family holidays, audits of his children’s messy bedrooms, the day he met his wife – which spark fleeting crescendos of optimism and rushes of love.

For the most part though, Tom’s mood is one of guilt, grief and fear. Park slowly reveals the details of the harrowing event which has thrown his once happy family off course, but from early on there’s an inevitability about what we’re about to learn, and how the story will end. Perhaps that’s the point, to signpost the destination so that what becomes interesting is the emotional diversions. It doesn’t matter that we know what’s going to happen; it’s the act of retracing the steps, the pain of wondering what might have changed the outcome, which haunts Tom, and the reader as well.

The prose is strewn with metaphors and allusions, perhaps too many for the novel to entirely escape accusations of occasionally laying it on a bit thick. It’s also true however that Belfast is a palimpsest rich with allegory. The water waiting to reclaim the land, the re-fashioned murals, the grimy, terraced ‘Holy Land’ – these might seem like over-stretched contrivances to the uninitiated but they’re all there, for real, in the day to day of that unique little city.

Tom regularly reminds us he has no religious faith, but his inner monologue reads increasingly like a redemptive prayer, a plea for help in figuring out how to keep things close, and let things go. That this father and son odyssey should come to rest under an angel’s wings is just one of its great emotional and artistic rewards. This is possibly Park’s best yet, and shines like a beacon among the host of exceptional literature to come out of Ireland in recent years.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Just room to mention a strange and rather lovely debut novel from former Buzzfeed journalist Dan Dalton. Mournful beat-up kid Johnny Ruin is also on a formative journey, this one through his chastising memories. He is accompanied by an unlikely spirit guide, the plain-speaking, wise and brotherly Jon Bon Jovi.

What begins as a witty, playful idea grows into a convincing and touching salutary tale of broken love, self-harm, and what Dalton describes perfectly as a kind of ‘fetishisation of sadness’. Omniscient companion Jon is a solid, lucid, empathetic dude, and one senses Dan Dalton might be too. If this is how he rolls, I’m rocking up for his next book.

Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park (Bloomsbury, £12.99)

Johnny Ruin by Dan Dalton (Unbound, £16.99)

Advertisement

Bigger Issues need bigger solutions

Big Issue Group is creating new solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunities for the 14.5 million people living in poverty to earn, learn and thrive. Big Issue Group brings together our media and investment initiatives as well as a diverse and pioneering range of new solutions, all of which aim to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity. Learn how you can change lives today.

Recommended for you

Read All
BetterPod: Sophia Smith Galer myth-busts the sex misinformation crisis
sex ed

BetterPod: Sophia Smith Galer myth-busts the sex misinformation crisis

Scattered All Over the Earth review: A fascinating tale of language and culture in flux
Book reviews

Scattered All Over the Earth review: A fascinating tale of language and culture in flux

Top 5 books about musicians, chosen by the late Mark Lanegan
Top 5 Books

Top 5 books about musicians, chosen by the late Mark Lanegan

Sea of Tranquility review: Time travel is anything but tired in this wonderfully inventive novel
Book reviews

Sea of Tranquility review: Time travel is anything but tired in this wonderfully inventive novel

Most Popular

Read All
Oil giants Shell and BP have been handed £700m of taxpayer cash despite bumper profits
1.

Oil giants Shell and BP have been handed £700m of taxpayer cash despite bumper profits

What are the risks of Don't Pay UK? We asked a leading lawyer
2.

What are the risks of Don't Pay UK? We asked a leading lawyer

How broken is the UK's public transport? I spent all day on buses to find out
3.

How broken is the UK's public transport? I spent all day on buses to find out

Sadiq Khan's Right to Buy-back scheme leads to return of 1,500 council homes
4.

Sadiq Khan's Right to Buy-back scheme leads to return of 1,500 council homes

Keep up to date with the Big Issue. The leading voice on life, politics, culture and social activism direct to your inbox.