David Park: Swallowing the Sun

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 (2004) 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.

swallowing-the-sun

Free copy courtesy of John Self and Bloomsbury.

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.

10 thoughts on “David Park: Swallowing the Sun

  1. This sounds a bit like The Gathering which I don’t think should have won the Booker. Do you think so? I mean that it sounds like The Gathering. I’m not sure I am up for another one like that. Although The Gathering did not have any of ‘the troubles’ in it. Okay I’m sounding like an idiot here but I think you will understand.

  2. Trevor says:

    Oh, I see where that might be inferred from my review, so thanks for asking that question, Candy.

    I didn’t like The Gathering much at all, Candy. I didn’t like the tone, I didn’t like the writing, I didn’t like the characters, etc. I respect Enright, but The Gathering, at the time, struck me wrong in so many ways (interestingly, it is the one book from that year’s shortlist that I’m tempted to try again, perhaps because I didn’t like it and feel like I missed something). I can happily report that Swallowing the Sun didn’t remind me of The Gathering in any way. Though the tone is one of repressed anger, it is not accompanied by abysmal despair. Where I found Enright’s book to be directed at depressing anyone who comes in contact with it, I didn’t find this book depressing at all, though it can be wrenching at times. It was very satisfying for its writing and its substance.

  3. John Self says:

    Thanks for reading and reviewing the book so promptly and thoroughly, Trevor. I’m glad to have introduced you to Park – next on my list will be The Big Snow, his novel which immediately preceded Swallowing the Sun. Bloomsbury also gave me a few of those to give away, so watch that space!

    Candy, Park is nothing like Enright. His writing is not a struggle to comprehend and he has a much more generous tone, I think. Don’t be put off by comparisons with The Gathering (which, for me, would amount only to “this book is nothing like The Gathering“).

  4. I have The Big Snow up next too, but given that the last of the real snow disappeared less than a month ago, it will be waiting until fall. Glad you liked this one Trevor — I think you will find The Truth Commissioner even better (and part of me wishes that I had read them in that order).

    If I was going to compare Park to anyone, I think it would be Sebastian Berry — definitely not Enright. In addition to what John says about him (and I agree with that assessment), he is particularly good at exploring how broader societal concerns and upheavals leave an impact on those who go through them. He does that in a most accessible way.

  5. And to show how much I dislike The Gathering….

    I just checked the MB archive and found I have read all of the shortlist from that year but this book and Darkmans at least twice. And I was just thinking last week about revisiting Darkmans.

  6. Sarah says:

    I confess I hadn’t heard of David Park before John reviewed him. I really liked the extracts you quoted so will add this to my must read list.

  7. Kevin I loved Darkmans. I still think it should have won. You have all convinced me I should give park a try. I didn’t like The Gathering at all. Actually I haven’t like the last three Booker winners.

  8. Candy: One of the reasons I was thinking about a rereading was that I did struggle with Darkmans the first time through — more about me than the book, I think, because I did finish it, albeit with questions in my mind. Have you read Barkers Behindlings? I tried it but found I just could not get into a rhythm — may give it another go sometime in the future.

  9. Kevin – no never heard of it. I’ve only read Darkmans which I loved. Maybe I should look at some of her other work.

  10. And if you are comparing Park to Barry, well I loved The Secret Scripture so that is more than enough convincing. I also found I had Wide Open on my shelf so I do have more Barker. What would I do without you guys?

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