God Only Knows

David Park, Gods and Angels

Bloomsbury, 304pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781408866108

reviewed by Jude Cook

A collection of great short stories, if carefully curated, can have the coherence of a novel, or at the very least a classic album. If Dubliners is the Sgt Pepper of the form, then later collections such as Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love or Annie Proulx’s Close Range are Blood on the Tracks and Hounds of Love respectively. Gods and Angels, the latest brace of stories from veteran Belfast novelist David Park, might well one day qualify as a minor classic – a Don’t Stand Me Down by Dexys, say, or Swoon by Prefab Sprout. Like the songs on these records, the tales here linger in the memory as a powerful and unified aesthetic experience. By turns gritty, soaring, soulful and elegiac, they take one into hitherto unexplored corners of the human heart and expose complex, contradictory emotions that are immediately recognisable.

As with the best albums, the best collections impress with their range, and Gods and Angels certainly does this. Park has such a steady, sure, humane voice, and is so supple in his choice of subject matter and character, that by the end we feel he could tackle virtually anything and make it convincing. From Henry, the Donne scholar in the first story, ‘Learning to Swim,’ out of his depth with Sam and Eddie, two ex-Republican hardmen, to the modern-day Charon in the ethereal last tale, ‘Crossing the River’, a plethora of characters and their disparate experiences are juxtaposed and explored.

‘Learning to Swim’, while not the strongest story in the volume, might stand as Park’s signature tune. All his major motifs are present, from the rich focus on a character’s interior to the nuanced sense of unease to the coal-black humour to the whiff of mortality, intruding just when life seems to be coming good in the end. There’s also a metaphorical reading, present in many of the stories, that inevitably concerns the politics of North and South, and Britain’s long and disastrous involvement in Ireland. Here, it only appears in the closing paragraph. After being pushed into a swimming pool as an extreme tactic by his instructor, Henry has a moment of clarity about Sam and Eddie before he goes under again:

And this is how I have come to remember them and everything that happened during those months – finding myself floundering in that strange element of a city, their faces and voices increasingly blurred as if they too were cast adrift in some world that was partly of their own making... all of us equally uncertain about when fortune’s favours might fade and whether our outstretched hands were ever going to reach.

Here Park perfectly articulates the fears and vulnerabilities of a post-Good Friday Agreement Ireland while exacting sly revenge on an Englishman whose great paranoia, at the start of the story, was that his Irish acquaintances would hold him ‘personally responsible for countless centuries of colonial oppression.’ Park’s most well-known novel, The Truth Commissioner (2009), enacts a similar coup within the structure of a thriller. The crimes of the past will always surface – it’s up to those going forward into the future whether they exercise mercy or not.

As well as effortlessly dealing with the macro political issues, Park’s eye for the micro is equally impressive. In the same story, the narrator notes the ‘brick-hard consonants of the Belfast vernacular’ in contrast to his own potentially incriminating English tones. Then there’s a trainer at an illegal boxing match, who smears grease over a cut, ‘smoothing and pressing it like putty into a window frame.’ The most moving moment of the story arrives when Eddie reveals he’s dying of prostate cancer and tasks Henry with finding a poem by Donne for his wedding. In the end, they settle on ‘The Good Morrow’. ‘“It’s beautiful,”’ Eddie tells him. ‘“The business… Back of the net.”’ No response is more emblematic of male reluctance to reveal emotion.

Moving too, is the second story, ‘Boxing Day’, in which a 17-year-old boy mediates between his separated parents: an alcoholic mother and a devoted father. The agony of which parent to see on Christmas Day and which to visit on Boxing Day is expertly handled, as is the boy’s reticence – depending on whom he’s most aggrieved with – to address them as either ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’: ‘I even came close to using the word ‘Mum’ but at the last moment decided not to break my stubborn resolve from an earlier age.’

Elsewhere, there’s a richly imagined story of Caravaggio’s painting The Taking of Christ, in ‘The Kiss’; and ‘Keeping Watch’, in which a private investigator breaks into his marital home to survey his damaged relationship at close quarters. Both these reinforce the sense of Park’s range, with their narrators’ voices perfectly inhabited. In the latter, the corrosive effects of surveillance are summed up thus: ‘It’s inevitable, I suppose . . . the spores that lodge in the brain, those dark spots like malignant growths, sired out of what you’ve seen, what your hand had to touch – these things don’t wash away with the shower you always try to take after work.’ Such dark introspective moments are counterbalanced by a sly humour: ‘The ridiculousness of having to make a potential arrest while holding two cups of coffee and two sausage rolls.’

There are many contenders for a hit single in Gods and Angels. In ‘The Bloggers’, a wife who sets up a feminist blog called Suffragette City is bested when her husband retaliates by starting a rival page called Spartacus dealing with ‘men’s issues’. And in ‘Skype’, a retired teacher whose wife ran off to a kibbutz with another woman, abandoning their daughter Hanna in the process, ends up on an isolated Scottish island, reviewing the wreckage of his life. The poignancy of father-child relationships, as well as battle-scarred middle-aged men and women separated by thousands of miles, is something Park does with great delicacy, teasing out moments of pathos that could be sentimental in other hands. Here, during a Skype conversation, the father talks to Hanna about everything except the subject at hand:

It is always in these few seconds of final silence, just before the screen goes blank that he wants to say something but never fully grasps what it is and so instead he merely raises his hand in farewell and tells her they will speak soon but already her image is fading into darkness.

The best of these potential hits all fall late in the collection, with a quartet beginning with ‘Man Overboard’. In this, a lads’ reunion ends up in the same bar as a hen party, only exposing the depredations and evasions of middle-age more explicitly: ‘We were stranded on the wrong side of forty and the talk and the football seemed increasingly like a slightly sad attempt to hold on to something that had already slipped away.’ After this story comes ‘Gecko’, in which a couple decide to spend their 25th wedding anniversary under the Northern Lights. Here the husband ruminates that ‘years of marriage had sapped his vitality with its endless give and take, its wordless accommodations and making the best of things.’ Yet Park seems to suggest this stoicism is what makes a successful union – the endurance to stick it out to the end. As they think about each other’s unknowable lives and turn over private regrets, they toast the stars. ‘So many dark spaces in a life; what could you do but try to fill them with a job, a family, a belief of some sort? Fill them with love.’ These meditations almost tip over into despair: ‘But looking up at the limitless depths it felt as if the spaces were too great, that even his best efforts were paltry in comparison.’ They only pull back from the brink in a perfectly achieved ending that is neither schmaltzy nor unlikely.

The penultimate story, ‘Old Fool’, is the longest – a sustained exploration of love across an age divide. Here, charity shop worker and widower Tom meets Georgie, an irreverent single mother, and an unpredictable relationship develops. Again, Park teases out all the pathos and excruciating irony of the situation – all the tribulations of the solitary, retired life, as well as the challenges faced by a single parent. But it is the final story that seals the collection, a ‘Day in the Life’ to finish the volume on a haunting, vatic note. ‘Crossing the River’ is narrated by a modern-day Charon, whose latest passenger turns out to be his recently deceased mother, though his profession isn’t clear from the start: ‘I take them over. It’s my job . . . because here time slowly unwinds… My palms are long sanded smooth by the oars and fingers white-whorled with calluses.’ The moment he first sees his mother is unforgettable (‘her eyes are fogged and webbed with death’), and the concluding admission of a son’s love – come too late, of course – is searing. It’s a masterful finish to a powerful collection.

While not as hip or as lionised as the new young gunslingers of Irish short fiction – Barry, Barrett and Doyle – Park makes up for it with the depth and penetration of his insight and the simple grace of his prose. Gods and Angels is a collection that will doubtlessly continue to improve over time, like the finest music.

Jude Cook ’s second novel, Jacob’s Advice, is funding now on Unbound.