A father drives through a snowstorm to bring his poorly son home from university for Christmas.
It sounds like barely enough of a premise for a short story, let alone a novel. And yet it is a novel and a completely compelling one: Travelling In A Strange Land by Irish writer David Park.
The narrator, Tom, sets out in the storm, determined to bring his son Luke home from Sunderland to Belfast, driving because the snow has closed the airport.
On this long journey, we learn quite why it is such an imperative, what’s driving this father to fetch his son. We see it in the fussing preparations before he even sets out, in the frequent phone calls between mum Lorna and Luke, between Tom and Luke….
As the story progresses we learn that Luke is not Tom and Lorna’s only son. Their other, Daniel, left home and now they never put the chain on the door overnight so that nothing can prevent him coming back when he wants. His absence is an unhealed wound.
This was an unusual book for me, more literary than I’d generally read. But the award-winning Park is a mesmerising writer. He takes his time. The whole book is that journey – one way.
But the journey is more than miles on the clock. It’s Tom’s journey, too, navigating emotions that he’s….well, not exactly a stranger to, but that he doesn’t dwell on often. I felt we really got to understand him and the complexity of the family’s history. It’s no surprise that Daniel was a troubled boy, a troubled teen, and you know what his absence means to his parents. It helps you understand their protectiveness of Luke.
Tom carries a secret with him alongside the flask of hot coffee, the sandwiches, hinted at but not in a teasing sensationalist way. It’s just that it’s too….big for him to acknowledge.