In 13 stories set mostly in his native Northern Ireland, novelist Park (The Poets’ Wives, 2014, etc.) explores the emotional lives of men from youth to old age.
While Park occasionally flirts with high culture—the opening story, “Learning to Swim,” features a young Donne scholar from England finding a poem for his new, older, richer, but less educated Belfast acquaintance to recite at his wedding; “The Kiss” swings between the scoundrel painter Caravaggio’s betrayal of a friend and present-day adultery—the emphasis here is on the daily grind of love. In the heart-wrenching “Boxing Day,” a teenager spends a miserable afternoon with his mentally ill mother, impatient to return to the new happy family his father has created yet longing to “know [his] mother as she must once have been.” Although the island on which the retired teacher in “Skype” lives may be extreme in its isolation, his yearning to stay connected with his faraway daughter via her preferred technology captures the zeitgeist of contemporary parenthood. In “Man Overboard,” four childhood friends, now middle-aged, spend an awkward fishing trip not really talking “about ourselves in the present” until one of them faces a crisis and the others react, revealing the potential tenderness of male friendship. Park shows love gone bad—the cop assigned a surveillance beat by day in “Keeping Watch” spends nights on unofficial surveillance of his ex-wife’s house despite a court order, his inability to let go turned into sickness—but the best stories here approach marital love as a complex organism. Technology is again the metaphor in “The Bloggers,” about a married couple’s evolution online and off. The long, seemingly moribund marriage in “Gecko” endures and reblooms once the husband accepts his own limitations. In “Old Fool,” the lonely widower who allows a struggling single mother to take advantage of his optimistic naiveté is also consciously compensating for his failure to appreciate his wife while she was alive.
Park’s stories render the shape-shifting weight of love with a subtle but emotionally penetrating accuracy.