David Park: The Truth Commissioner

Who’d be a publisher? Having to shout equally loud about all the books you publish, it becomes impossible for browsers to tell the good from the bad. Maybe there should be a key – a winking eye on the spine, say – to tell us what’s not really worth bothering with. The thought occurred as I was reading David Park’s new novel The Truth Commissioner, a book worthy of the highest praise; and yet I know I would never have heard of it, let alone bought it, if I hadn’t noticed that the book launch was taking place in my home city of Belfast, Park being a fellow Northern Irishman – and that in optimistic preparation, my local Waterstone’s had a couple of hundred copies stacked high everywhere I looked. I don’t know whether this is cheering, because I did discover it, or depressing, because of all the others I haven’t.

The Truth Commissioner

I don’t know whether The Truth Commissioner is cheering or depressing either: it’s solemn of outlook all right, but such a rare pleasure to read that it sent shivers of delight right up through me from the pages. It takes a situation ripe with emotional possibilities and does it every justice.

The setting is Northern Ireland, home of long memories and extended news bulletins, where at present there is momentum for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to help draw a line under decades of conflict. Where other writers might feel that the move from violence to politics robs the subject of power, Park’s stroke of brilliance is to recognise that it is these moments of change – where attention has moved on but the story is not yet over – which offer the most dramatic potential, and in the book the Commission has been established. Some people want to forgive and forget, perhaps because their status now is one they don’t want to lose; others want to remember and still demand justice. Overlooking them all are the British and Irish politicians who most of all want to feel the hand of history on their shoulder, and will permit principles to erode in order to keep the process on track.

The first two-thirds of the book moves unhurriedly, with 60-page portraits of four men: Henry Stanfield, the Truth Commissioner; Francis Gilroy, former IRA man and now Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly; James Fenton, retired detective who will be able to provide some unwelcome facts to the Commission; and Danny, a young Irishman in America who is about to make a commitment to his girlfriend. Where these scenes excel is in filling in the truth of the men: Stanfield’s adulterous past, estranged daughter and weakness for younger women; Gilroy’s embarrassment at his lack of cultural knowledge which leads him to surreptitiously read Philip Larkin poems, and his new understanding of the fear of sudden murder which he himself once instilled in others; Fenton’s need to drive across Europe “where he’s unknown and no more visible than a grain of sand on the world’s shore” to atone for his past; Danny’s mistaken belief that his only worries are for the future. Stanfield in particular is a fascinating character, a perfect example of the type of person who comes to hate their old homeland after being away – Belfast is a place of “self-consoling mythology” – and who has some unwelcome observations to make about the political process:

Now the world doesn’t care any more because there are bigger wars and better terrors and all that remains is this final tidying up … He has even met a few individuals already who clearly have become emotionally dependent on their grief, who have jerry-built a kind of lop-sided, self-pitying life out of it and are unwilling to risk having even that taken from them, in exchange for their day in the sun.

These sections are written with beautiful poise and elegance, and although the sinuous style seemed a little similar from character to character, it can only be to Park’s credit that I found myself each time unwilling to leave the man whose life had been laid out before me, and keen to hear more of his story. The characters are fully fleshed, struggling to maintain their sense of self even as they understand that their place is ultimately in someone else’s story, with their “inability to resist or stop the flow.”

Although urgently political in background, the stories at the heart of The Truth Commissioner are human ones, stories of exertion of and submission to power, and of “the curse of memory.” In the last third the pace picks up and the story becomes almost a thriller – well, I was pretty thrilled anyway – without sacrificing its grounded sincerity. All this is surrounded by a linked introduction and coda which opens the book on a note of high drama and ends it with something approaching serenity.

Truth is a relative concept, and personal, and perhaps I am swayed by my knowledge of the places and processes described in the book, like an excited local pointing out his street on a TV drama. For me, nonetheless, the truth is that David Park has written what looks like the first essential novel of 2008.


  1. Haha yes, I couldn’t find an image of the cover online without the sticker and was too lazy to scan in my own (which did have the same sticker but which I swiftly removed!). It was A Book at Bedtime last week, apparently. The bird is an odd choice, isn’t it, presumably intended to look at the same time peaceful and predatory, but to me it makes the book look a bit lit-fic-by-numbers. The US cover is more John le Carré, a man in an illuminated window surrounded by darkness: starker and probably more fitting.

  2. Thanks Isabel!

    I think the book could be seen as being either in the near future or an alternate present. Certainly the details of Belfast are perfectly contemporary.

  3. Thanks Stewart. (It has a different quote on the cover for some reason.) Of course I’ll have to leave the current one up now, or else Mark’s original comment will be confusing…

  4. This sounds fascinating – one for my TBR pile. I’m not sure how you feel about non-fiction, but since you found THE TRUTH COMMISSIONER so compelling, I thought I’d recommend to you COUNTRY OF MY SKULL by Antjie Krog. A superb book dealing with South Africa’s TRC from her perspective as journalist covering it, and individual South African feeling the effects. Each chapter has a different approach, so it is relatively easy to read it in manageable chunks. South African journalists who covered the TRC day in and day out all began to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders…

  5. Thanks Equiano – in fact you’re the second person to recommend Country of My Skull to me (hello Sam, if you’re reading this!) so I will add it to my wishlist. You mention journalists at the South African TRC suffering PTSD – I hope it is not spoilerish to say that in The Truth Commissioner, hearing all the details of past horrors has a similar effect on Henry Stanfield, and all sorts of other effects on the other men involved…

  6. John – Re: the ‘scary bird’ on the cover – an amalgam of the ‘hawks and doves’ approach that characterised the IRA’s / Sinn Fein’s approach to the Peace Process? Cheers, Dec

  7. Yes that makes sense Dec, thanks!

    By the way for anyone who’s interested in this book, I’m planning to attend the launch on Tuesday and will report back here on anything interesting.

  8. See you there Alan! Anyone interested in this book should click the link in Alan’s comment above, as his review gives a much more detailed assessment of the relevance of the book to contemporary politics – and vice versa – than mine does.

  9. I should have looked at your photo before going to the launch…
    Your review has me nearly afraid to read the book, in case I’m disappointed!
    But it clinches for The Truth Commissioner the place on the top of the pile at my bedside!

  10. I hope you won’t be disappointed Cheryl – admittedly I read it without any expectations (it was my first Park too) but I think it stands up to scrutiny. Sorry to have missed you both: Alan because he didn’t make it, and Cheryl because I didn’t know you would be there and didn’t know what you look like anyway!

    Nice to hear Glenn Patterson mention the swooping starlings over the Albert Bridge which Mrs Self and I were just discussing on the way out of town the other night.

  11. I’m 150 pages in and savouring every word. I too was at the launch and thought it went really well. Lovely introduction from Glenn Patterson.

    I’m amazed by the novel, but feel a bit nervous about whether it will be widely recognised. Portillo is one of the Booker judges after all… 🙂

  12. Well I thought Portillo might like the whole politics background…

    At the launch Mrs Self and I stood talking to one another the whole time (with brief intervals to talk to David Park when he was signing my books), unaware that we were practically surrounded by people I ‘know’!

    And Glenn Patterson turns out to be 46! Doesn’t he look well? Saw his 1999 novel The International has been reissued in Waterstone’s the other day. Must pick it up. His first full-length work of non-fiction, Once Upon a Hill will be published by Bloomsbury in September.

  13. Hmmmm, so I was right to be suspicious about the Booker Prize.

    Very, very disappointed not to see Park’s book being recognised. I just don’t think Northern Irish fiction is properly understood or valued by the mainstream literary world.

    Portillo is the chairman? It’s almost like he doesn’t understand real politics and the lives of ordinary people or something… 🙂

  14. Agree entirely gavin; very disappointed not to see Park make the cut. To be honest I thought the political angle might appeal to Portillo. I’ve included it in my list of should-haves in my Booker Prize sidebar.

  15. Sorry to be so late into the discussion on this — maybe my thoughts will revive it. I finally got to this book this week — had bought in July but when it missed the longlist, it moved into the Read Later pile. I remembered this review, however, and it is one of the first to come off that pile.

    And I must say it is a wonderful book, as this review indicates. The four interlinked characters are very well drawn, the tension is extremely well created in the first two-thirds of the book and the final third is gripping (one might even say “gritty”). I certainly found it a book that had enough plot to keep you interested, enough character develpment to keep you thinking and, in the final analysis, enough question-posing about the world today to require even deeper thinking. I am one of those people who gets down on books that are written too soon after historical events (most of the 9/11 fiction). This book is far enough removed from both Ireland and South Africa to blend elements of those two experiences and expore what that might mean. And for those of us living in the shadow of the U.S., what the fallout from some of that nation’s current travesties might eventuallly mean (“We had to do it, it was a war.”)

    If I had a criticism, it would be that Park treats his female characters much to facilely, important only as they relate to their men — and I’d guess Louise certainly pointed this out to the Booker jury. I would agree with that criticism. While every one of the men has a wife, lover or daughter as a counterpoint to his dilemma, none of those characters are ever fully developed. Neither for that matter is the victim’s sister, who provides the thread that pulls the four men into the final conflict and the outburst that finally resolves the story. She would have made a very interesting fifth stream.

    Given that it has been months since you read and reviewed the book, John, I’d be interest in how much has stayed with you and what you think now. For my money, it is better than several books that did make the longlist and should have rated serious shortlist consideration, especially if the judges were looking for a “readable” book. This book is not just readable, it lives on after reading.

  16. Thanks Kevin – I’m glad you liked the book; all the praise for it on the Booker forum could easily have led to overdeveloped expectations.

    As I can still remember a good deal about all the male characters eight months on, but not a thing about any of the females, I would have to concede the point you make. As to the notion of books being written too soon after events, I agree, but the beauty of The Truth Commissioner is that it goes back further than just the ‘peace process’ and of course the characters – particularly Henry Stanfield – have qualities and are characterised in ways which go far beyond their involvement in the present political situation in Ireland.

  17. What I particularly liked about this book and its relation to current history was that Park used that history to develop characters — and a story — rather than offering his take on what that history was all about. I also liked that he “stretched” the real events to create a genuine, if fictional, experience. The book was definitely a more satisfying read than many I have read lately.

  18. I thought this was a very good book that did get somewhat overlooked last year. Glad to see it won some prize. I certainly recommend it as a very worthwhile read (as this review indicates).

  19. I really must read this book, not only because of your fantastic description of its content (that alone makes me want to find a nice quiet place and read, what must be a masterpiece for several days solid), but also because Mr.Park taught me English. Lit! Unfortunately he’s retiring this year, and shall be missed terribly in Down High School. I think all my english class will miss his dry wit and moments were he randomly started talking about a new book he’s going to write! Thanks a million for the fascinating description about it! I’ve only heard it talked about once before, and that was from the mouth of the author himself. As you can imagine modesty got in the way of describing a pure masterpiece!

  20. Hi Louise, thanks for your comment. I knew Park was a teacher so it’s nice to get some first-hand details of that side of him. I hope that his retirement enables him to spend more time writing! And I hope you like the book when you read it.

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