Off the Shelf Book Reviews: Traveling on a Strange Land / Spies in Canaan

Off the Shelf: Traveling in a Strange Land / Spies in Canaan
Both by David Park. Bloomsbury Publishing 978-1-4088-9275-6 163 pp. 2018 / Bloomsbury Publishing 978-1-5266-3195-4 188 pp 2022. Review by Terrence J. Kenneally

This month’s Off the Shelf column reviews two books by a Northern Irish writer, David Park. Traveling in a Strange Land is ostensibly about how the main character, Tom, drives across England from Northern Ireland to pick up his university student son, who is stranded due to the weather. The premise of Traveling in a Strange Land was inspired by the author’s own son being stranded in Sunderland just before Christmas during his first year at university as Newcastle Airport was closed due to snow.

The father’s other son has gotten involved in drugs and the father feels an immense sense of regret for what he has said to him and that he sent his son from the family house. The novel carefully peels open the man’s heart and mind about his unresolved issues with that son and his failure as a father. It’s a book about the deep regrets that every human being has and sometimes the way that we can debilitate you and freeze your sense of forward movement in life.

Park’s second book, Spies in Canaan, is set largely during the Vietnam war, narrated by a young American named Michael Miller, who is working for the army. The US involvement in the war peaked in the late 1960s, just as youth radicalization was taking off worldwide.

The title of the novel comes from a rhyme Park learned in Sunday school as a child about a biblical story of twelve spies: Twelve spies went to spy in Canaan / Ten were bad, two were good.

In the book, Michael becomes involved with two other men: a naïve young man, Corley, and the cynical Donovan. All three are changed by the war in sometimes dramatic ways. The novel also explores the messy withdrawal from Vietnam, which chimes with current events, and last year’s messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In the second part of the book, after retirement, one day there was a visitation: a mysterious car on the sea front where Michael, a widower, lives, and a package delivered. From its contents, Michael understands that he has been commissioned to undertake a final journal. Taut, atmospheric and moving, Spies in Canaan is a powerful elegy to the pain of love, the guilt of old age, and the grace of atonement.

Praise for David Park comes from many of Ireland’s contemporary writers: ‘David Park is one of Ireland’s great novelists’- Roddy Doyle; ‘A writer’s writer of great skill’- John Boyne; and ‘Breathtaking, brave, and exhilarating…every sentence in Park’s books is felt’- Claire Kilroy. I rate both of these books as TOP SHELF reads.

*Terrence J. Kenneally is an attorney and owner of Terrence J. Kenneally & Assoc. in Rocky River, Ohio. He obtained his Master’s Degree from John Carroll University and has taught Irish history and literature in high school for several years. He may be reached at [email protected].

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