Swallowing the Sun by David Park (2004) Bloomsbury (2009) 244 pp
David Park is a writer from Northern Ireland whom I might never have heard of were it not for his fellow Northern Irishman, John Self. Last year John trumpeted the release of Park’s The Truth Commissioner as “a book worthy of the highest praise.” Then this year, John visited Swallowing the Sun from Park’s backlist. John suggested that Park belonged in the company of “novelists from Northern Ireland [who] could reasonably said to be of international stature.” Unfortunately for those of us in America, Park is not yet a well known name, and is not readily available here. Ahh, but fortunately for me, John hosted a contest on his blog and I was one of those fortunate enough to win a copy of Swallowing the Sun. I can now add to the praise of others: Park’s novel is excellent, and he should be more widely read.
I knew little more about Swallowing the Sun than that it takes place in Belfast, that it deals, perhaps only tangentially, with the Troubles, but that it is primarily a book about family relations. Park excellently makes the book an intimate look at a family struggle while keeping the political undertones subtle and delicately intertwined, surfacing only slightly and believably.
The book begins at the graduation of Martin’s daughter Rachel, who is the great hope for a severance with the past. She’s bound for Oxford or Cambridge. We know from the brief prologue that Martin grew up in a rough neighborhood with an abusive father and somewhat aloof mother. His little brother is still part of that neighborhood. Martin, however, has managed to remove himself. However, now with a family of his own, Martin feels like an imposter. At the graduation, he looks around at the other parents who have the “confidence not to be sitting in their best clothes” and wonders when the façade will drop. He’s absolutely proud of his daughter but is insecure enough to actually consider leaving the ceremony.
Martin has done a lot to break away from the life that was laid out before him, though he considers his life now to be a façade. He now works as a security guard in a museum and goes around trying to memorize the information so he can keep within his daughter’s orbit when she leaves. After a shameful encounter, Martin feels even more guilt about his past and his seeming roleplaying. This sample passage excellently shows how much Martin wants to be fully integrated into the life he has but that he cannot escape his repressed anger about his own past. Those two feelings come together in a nicely judgmental tone.
There’s something else that has started to get to him — working the Sunday afternoon shift. It’s not the noise of the crowds or the shuffling vacuousness of their faces, it’s not the street kids playing chasey, that affects him the most. It’s the steady procession of separated fathers with their designated access hours to put in that upsets him in a way he has never known before. Pumped up on fast-food lunches and fizzy drinks, the kids scamper ahead, while their fathers struggle to keep up, their showy attempts at fatherhood being ignored. They feel the obligation to point out things to their sons and daughters, to compensate for their absence of instruction during the rest of the week. The children are always overexcited, pleased to be with them but still determined to show the edge of their unspoken resentment at what they see as a betrayal, their rejection by someone to whom they had given their trust. So he watches them exploit the fathers’ sense of guilt and extract as much as they can from their pockets in the café or shop but without the forgiveness for which they’re desperate.
Just as we readers are settling into a pleasant rhythm in the book, roaming into the excellently rendered psychologies of the main characters, Park dries our throats with a silencing shock, and the family’s peace and success spiral out of control. Martin’s anger continues to build.
. . . he watches the children dropping coins into the water and even that makes him angry. Why should they have luck? Why should they have what he’s never had because a coin splashes into water? He watches the single fathers with their children borrowed like a weekend video, and remembers all the times he thought this was the worst thing that could happen and now he hates them because they don’t know how good the little they have really is.
The book is deeply moving and at times thrilling. While maintaining a quick pace, Park is able to create a believable nuclear family of four by focusing a limited third-person perspective on each character, allowing the reader to see the motives that underly the actions leading to an encounter with the past.
I agree with John. Park deserves to be ranked with authors of international stature. And apparently, he’s getting better.