The Truth Commissioner by David Park

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The Truth Commissioner by David Park

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Some time round about now, Stanfield is appointed Truth Commissioner and among his first cases is one which brings together himself, a government Minister, an ex-policeman...and a college gardener. As one family simply seeks to claim a body and lay it to rest, the repercussions disturb the lives of many others who thought the past was laid to rest. Story-telling at its best and political questioning at its most subtle. Recommended on both levels.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747596332

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In the beginning, there is a boy taken on a journey. He'd never been anywhere before ‘except once'. And now he's frightened – and so he should be. He is in deep trouble.

But that was a long time ago.

Now people are getting on with their lives…

Henry Stanfield has been appointed Truth Commissioner. Learning from the South African model a Truth & Reconciliation Commission has been set up to acknowledge the deeds that were done in the Irish conflict. Full amnesties are to be offered for full disclosure. Truth must out, is the theory, so that healing can begin. People deserve to know the truth.

Years in the law – at the Bar, in the international court, and in academia – have taught Stanfield that the truth can't be deserved, that if it exists at all, it exists outside of the constraints of need or personal desire. That truth rarely makes anything better and frequently makes it worse.

One way and another Stanfield has lost his wife and his daughter, and comes across as a truly lost soul, searching for something that he can't quite identify. Youth perhaps, or love.

Francis Gilroy is the newly appointed Minister for Children and Culture. He is of the old school – having fought for the cause. He has short shrift for those who were not there, and did not sacrifice what he did. What his family had to. Side-lined into this harmless backwater, in the joint government, he cannot shed the paranoia of those days. As a minister he still warrants protection – and receives it – but who, now, would really see him as a target worth the risk? He lives with fear because it is what he is used to, and because it seems he is afraid to let it go. That fear is what has earned him his place at the top table. Perhaps he too is lost.

James Fenton is a retired policeman. Married with a loving and lovely wife – they never had children. This is the loss that haunts their life… tied up with the stress of those days, or just one of those things? Who knows? Now he walks the hills. And on a mission from his church he drives a van-load of supplies and gifts across Europe to a Romanian orphanage. The isolation…and the journey bring back memories. And he meets a boy…

On the other side of the world, in the warm southern sun of the USA there is Danny. Working as a college gardener, he lives with his pregnant girlfriend and is putting off the conversation with the local priest about organising the wedding. Because he too remembers… and his memories cannot remain hidden. Maybe it's time for Confession again – a cleansing for himself, that has nothing to do with his immortal soul.

All of these lives crossed a long time ago. The time when the boy was taken on a journey. Now as the Truth Commissioner picks up his caseload, they are about to cross again. Each and every one of them will be called upon to tell the truth.

Or a version of it.

2007 saw Irish politics and society in possibly the healthiest, most optimistic condition anyone of my age can ever remember. Barely school age when 'the Troubles' exploded, I later learned how much history lay behind the events of the sixties and seventies. Later yet, I learned how much political manipulation (on all sides) played that history for all it could be made to seem worth.

2007 also saw the rise in serious debate about whether the Truth & Reconciliation model promoted in South Africa might be a way forward for Ireland. A way of laying the past to rest. In this story Park examines some of the very real issues that will arise in the event of such a thing coming to pass.

The quasi-legal set-up with a remit specifically NOT to judge is still a somewhat alien concept – much more so perhaps in the western democracies where the rule of law is the reason and excuse for all, than in places where the rule of law had broken down far more comprehensively – or at least been more comprehensively abused.

A more pertinent difference between Ireland and South Africa is that in the latter, the 'judgement' is a given – a precondition. The fundamental argument is, generally speaking, settled. The apartheid system has been accepted as 'unethical' and 'unfair' if not downright immoral. The 'war' has in a sense been won – and it is time for the battlefield to be cleared and the dead to be counted and named.

The same does not apply in Ireland. The war has not been won or lost. Instead both sides have acknowledged its cost, perhaps even its futility, and agreed to lay aside their weapons…but 'judgement' has not been passed on the rights and wrongs. So the grievances still fester, and people on both sides feel a level of betrayal.

There are deep-seated and strongly held views on all angles of the conflict and of individual events within it. It is not for me, at least here, to comment on the rights and wrongs of any or all of those views.

Comment, however, is what literature is about. Good literature is about making people comment for themselves, and potentially great literature must force us to question our personal commentaries. Not necessarily to change them, but to hold them up for inspection and consider their continued validity.

In this David Park succeeds.

It is not a work that should make you think. It is one that will.

Given the theme it cannot help but be a highly political work. Nevertheless Park manages to strike a balance by shifting his focus away from the political and intensifying the personal. He takes a single incident and locates people who were party to it, on all sides. Rather than then telling the story of the incident, he moves away from it, and tells us the stories of those people. The first half of the book reads almost as a collection of short stories – each of which is actually strong enough to stand alone as such – but conversely each of which holds echoes that ensure you're confident of the connections being revealed in due course.

If that weren't enough: he writes beautifully. His images are concise: as invisible as a grain of sand on the world's shorethe expanse of dark glass engraved with…shivering streaks of moonlight – the choir emerging onto dark street as if all the city's magnolia buds have burst open. His dialogue catches nuances of Irishness that only an author hearing them daily would recognise, but which in their subtlety are enough for even an English reader to hear not just a different voice, but a different origin.

The Truth Commissioner only works as a political question - which is how I interpret it – because it works as a totally believable story.

And if the novel is a question, do I have an answer? I believe that people do have a right to the truth, but they also have a right to justice – and what good is served by giving them the truth if it increases the sense of injustice? Ultimately, my personal answer is that what all of the people of Ireland deserve is a chance to simply draw the line and move on. That will take the strength and dignity to acknowledge that there are many debts that will never be settled, and many hurts that cannot be healed but must be borne. The best hope for the future – and not just in Ireland – is when people are allowed to lay down their fear, and live.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If you enjoyed this book then you might also enjoy His Illegal Self by Peter Carey.

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Buy The Truth Commissioner by David Park at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Truth Commissioner by David Park at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The Truth Commissioner by David Park at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Truth Commissioner by David Park at Amazon.com.

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