Wednesday, 10 December 2008

A Wee Review - The Truth Commissioner by David Park


In the last year David Park’s The Truth Commissioner has been acclaimed by many as the most important book to come out of Northern Ireland’s current political situation. And maybe it is. I haven’t read all the books that aim to examine this stage of the peace process, and I doubt they’ve all been written yet, so I’ll reserve judgement on that count. What I can say, is that The Truth Commissioner left me thinking about Northern Ireland in terms of my own Northern Irish/Irish/British(?) identity and my confused and often ignored idea of personal politics. But the review isn’t about me and my political commitment problems. So, on with my impressions of the book.

On purely a story-telling level, there’s a strong but slow-paced plot driven by a huge amount of time spent inside the four protagonists’ heads. The structure of the book reads like a collection of four interlinking novellas until the final act, which then ups the pace with shorter chapters and a number of POV shifts. The prose is very dense, and unless you’re entirely plugged in, a lot of nuances could be glossed over. Luckily, Park’s writing is beautifully crafted, so it’s not as big a chore as the first glance at the page might suggest.

The four main characters are all very interesting, which they’d need to be. The book is minimal in action and big on introspection. Each character is believable in their flaws, entirely human and utterly miserable. I’m slightly worried that they’re a depressing representation of modern Northern Irish man, but then, one of them is English. I don’t want to go too deep in examining them, as Park has done that for you, so instead I’ll give you a quick run through:

Stanfield – The truth commissioner. He’s been drafted in to oversee a vital stage in the peace and reconciliation process in which the circumstances around the ‘disappeared’ are investigated. However professional he seems, his personal life is far from enviable.

Gilroy – The ex-provo politician. He’s tied in to a particular ‘disappeared’ case under investigation but the issue seems to be overshadowed by his daughter’s impending marriage.

Fenton – The ex-RUC officer. His involvement in the investigation has dragged him out of a peaceful retirement.

Danny – A young man trying to build a new life in America. But not even the Atlantic Ocean can insulate him from his past.

There’s a melancholy running though the book. Isolation and loneliness seem to be the predominant feelings shared by the cast. They’re all haunted in their own way, and for much the same reason in the cases of Gilroy, Fenton and Danny. Little comfort to those who believe they have suffered loss at the hands of these characters, but perhaps a hint of a way towards reconciliation? Yes, we’ve all been hurt by the Troubles, even those perceived to have done the hurting? Is that the book’s message? Possibly. I don’t want to get too cerebral about it, but I will say, it’s a decent, nay, strong read. But don’t expect to blast through it. This one will leave you thinking.

As far as an examination of the political situation in Northern Ireland goes, The Truth Commissioner is a well-balanced and very interesting assessment. It’s not preachy and nor does it lean towards any particular political opinion. We need more books like this, and I need to read them. If you’re Northern Irish, you could almost consider it therapy.

5 comments:

seanag said...

In my very brief and exquisitely mistimed career as a reviewer for my local newspaper this year, I actually wrote a review of this book. It was actually my favorite of the ones I read. If anyone is interested in a not particularly well informed American's perspective, you can find it here. It got a little chopped, but it's basically what I meant to say.

Truth Commissioner review

Gerard Brennan said...

Seana - Thanks for sharing. A very thoughtful review.

Cheers

gb

seanag said...

Thanks, for reading it, Gerard. I expect it would have been even better if I had seen that kid on YouTube that Adrian McKinty showed a few weeks ago. Might have gotten more of the Norn Iron feel...

Gerard Brennan said...

Seana - Hah! Yeah, that guy. Funny as he was, I think you did better without him.

Cheers

gb

seanag said...

Yeah, most likely, but I have to say that he did give me hope for the future. I sent the link along to my nephew.