David Park first came to my attention last summer when a number of people on the Man Booker forum tipped The Truth Commissioner as a longlist contender. I ordered the Northern Ireland author’s book then, but it went on the shelf when it missed the longlist. I finally got to it late in 2008 and was very impressed — and resolved to visit more of this writer’s work.
Swallowing the Sun arrived a few weeks ago and took its place on the “read soon” pile. So when John Self offered a review on the Asylum recently, I moved it up the pile. John wondered how much his own familiarity with the Belfast setting influenced his impression of the book — I figured that given that I lived an ocean and the better part of a continent away, and have never been to Belfast, I would be well placed to offer an answer.
I am delighted to report that Swallowing the Sun travels very well. I am sure familiarity with the setting would add another dimension, but even without that it is a very good book.
The central character is Martin Waring, the setting is Belfast and the timing is just after the Troubles. While that disruption plays a part in Martin’s dismal circumstances, Park is very careful about how much and when he reveals that — the book is about the consequences of that environment on a family of individuals, not the political events themselves.
For the first half of the book, Martin is a study in repressed anger — the seeds of which were sown by an abusive father and which have grown to maturity in the troubled Ireland where he lives. He is married, although there are tensions there, and has a studious and successful teenage daughter, Rachel, (who may well earn a place at Oxford or Cambridge) and an overweight, video-game-playing son, Tom, who shows every indication of growing into a modern day version of his father.
The only thing Martin likes about his life is his job as a security guard at a museum; it is a place where he can retreat from a world that he does not understand and immerse himself in calming history:
“You belong in a museum, Dad,” Rachel says and everyone, including Tom, smiles. It’s the family’s favourite joke.
He spends his life looking at people and things. Sometimes he walks about a little, sometimes he checks things — dials, temperatures, doors; things like that. He feels comfortable with the little rituals, the routines that have to be followed.
He watches the visitors, too. They change — with the weather, the day of the week, the time of year. He watches them but they don’t see him. It’s as if he watches them from behind the protection of a glass and even when their eyes rest on him it’s only for a second and then they move on.
It is no spoiler to say that Martin’s repressed anger will eventually explode — Park loads on the pressure until two events about midway through the book cause Martin to crack. From that point on, Swallowing the Sun becomes a quick-moving, plot-driven book.
In a number of ways, this novel reminded me of Travis Holland’s The Archivist’s Story, recently reviewed here. Just as Holland used Stalinist Russia to explore the consequences of repression on individuals, Park uses the turbulent history of Northern Ireland as a stage that creates an impact for individuals, not just Martin but his wife, children and brother as well. For me, both books succeed.
Park, in fact, uses a relatively unusual narrative technique to good effect in this book. While all of the narration is in the third person, he locates different sections — usually a few pages, sometimes even less than a page — from the point of view of each of his characters as they experience different versions of the same circumstances. It proves a very effective way of developing all of his major characters.
I can’t help but think that that was practice for The Truth Commissioner, where Park expands the technique. In that book (also post Troubles) the truth commissioner, a government minister, a retired detective and an expectant father alternate chapters as Park weaves his overall story.
I also can’t help but compare the two books. There is no doubt that The Truth Commissioner is a more ambitious book with a larger overall story, better realized for this reader. In no way is that a criticism of Swallowing the Sun; indeed, in some ways this more introspective book has more going for it. I don’t think reading the latter book first was a problem.
If you happen to get to this review quickly, John Self is running a draw for a free copy of Swallowing the Sun, shipped anywhere in the world — with an entry deadline of April 25, so hop to it. It is shameless of me to be piggy-backing on someone else’s contest, but then he was the guy who wondered how this book would read outside of Northern Ireland — very well, would be my conclusion.