April 18, 2009

David Park: Swallowing the Sun

Posted in Bloomsbury, Park David at 8:00 am by John Self

Being from Northern Ireland, I’ve long been conscious that my own corner of the world has been overshadowed in literary terms by its quarrelling parents, Britain and Ireland. What novelists from Northern Ireland could reasonably said to be of international stature? Brian Moore, certainly. Bernard MacLaverty. There are younger writers like Glenn Patterson or Robert McLiam Wilson, but I haven’t read enough of them to judge. Let me now suggest, however, that David Park belongs to that company; that he is, at the very least, better than many higher-selling and more widely acclaimed British literary novelists. Last year I delighted in his latest novel, The Truth Commissioner. Now I begin the pleasurable task of working back through his output.

swallowingthesun

Swallowing the Sun (2004) reflects the times in which it was written: when Northern Ireland was struggling to free itself of the legacy of ‘the Troubles’. There was a time when the very sniff of this subject matter in a book would send me running, but something must have changed – time, distance – as this is the second book on the theme I’ve read this year, the first being Benedict Kiely’s excellent Proxopera. In fact to call Park’s book a ‘Troubles story’ is limiting and wrong, since it is also a family story, a thriller, and a meditation on the difficulty of fitting in while to thine own self being true. “What good would it be if your own self was inadequate or unformed?”

The central character is Martin Waring, a man whose background – a violent father, a loyalist neighbourhood – are efficiently sketched out by Park in a short preface. His upbringing defines Waring, if only because he cannot let it go. He has taken a job as a museum security guard to try to discard his educational failures and “live inside the world of ideas”, and is both proud and intimidated by his daughter Rachel’s academic success. (He has other reasons too: “strange to feel safest from the past in a museum.”) He is impressed and seduced by art and intelligence. When an artist who is being exhibited at the museum has a conversation with him,

it was … as if she liked him and that made him feel good and he wondered if being washed in enough people’s like could be the thing that would make him clean. Like everyone else. The same as everyone else.

Park’s ability, as in The Truth Commissioner, is to present a plausible human drama from different points of view, and not only that, but to exhibit an expert control of pace which made me race through the book in a day. Swallowing the Sun is a plot- and character-driven book, where the developments (unfortunately hinted at on the back cover blurb) fit together neatly with everything that has gone before and slot into the political context.

‘Now the Troubles are over, everybody has to make a living from legit crime – drugs, protection, counterfeit goods, moving fuel over the border and all the rest. It’s what they think of as the peace dividend.’

This is a book which, while not stylistically innovative, is structurally satisfying and has a well-judged ending. It’s hard to know with a book like this, which seems to me as good an example of its type as I’ve read, whether I derived some additional pleasure from the familiar (to me) setting. So, for example, when a character refers to a lemonade factory on the Castlereagh Road, I know it’s the one I used to drive past on the way home from work. I hope that this ‘local halo’ is negligible, and that I would have liked the book as much if set in Surrey (…with its well-known paramilitary past).

Swallowing the Sun does not have the scope or ambition of The Truth Commissioner, but I found it a much more gripping and urgent read. And if – I said if – it does not quite match up to Park’s latest work, then that should not be cause for concern. It just means he’s getting better, from an already high standard, and that the best is yet to come.



I have a copy of Swallowing the Sun to give away – it has a different cover from the above (yes, I was silly enough to buy a new copy when the above rejacketing occurred) but is pristine and unread. If you would like to be included in the draw for it, say so in the comment box below before 25 April 2009. I’ll draw a winner at random after that. Anyone anywhere in the world can enter, and the only condition is that you read it and come back here to share your thoughts.

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47 Comments »

  1. Steerforth said,

    You’ve made me want to read this novel, so please pop my name into the hat.

    • Wormito said,

      I have also had my appetite whetted. Please include me in the draw :)

      Alex

  2. Trevor said,

    I’d like to be entered, John. The Truth Commissioner sounded excellent so I’d love to enter David Park’s world.

  3. deucekindred said,

    I promise i’ll give feedback :) (that’s my of saying that i’d like take part)

  4. Teresa said,

    This book sounds excellent. Please add me to the drawing.

  5. Brian Kelly said,

    Yes please

  6. Christina said,

    Your review won me over. Throw my name in hat, please.

  7. Nechtan said,

    I’d like to be entered too. It sounds like a good yarn.

  8. Blog serendipity again — this book arrived just this week, so you don’t have to enter me in the draw.

    The Truth Commissioner was also my first Park (thanks mainly to your review) and I have as high an opinion of it as you do — in fact, it would be my number one “under the radar” book of 2008, perhaps somewhat overlooked because it came out so early in the year. It was certainly good enough to have me mark Park down as an author whose backlist I should get to and Swallowing the Sun proved the first choice. I know I shouldn’t create a “character profile” for an author on the basis of one book, but Park does strike me as someone who writes books that have enough plot to keep the book going, enough depth and direction to keep you thinking and tight enough writing to produce a book that can be read in one reading day. Your review would seem to indicate this book meets those conditions.

  9. John Self said,

    Yes I’d agree with that character profile, Kevin, which also reminded me of Brian Moore, though I hadn’t thought of linking him to Park before. I don’t think Park is of Moore’s ability, but I’ve read only two of his books so it’s early days.

    Thanks for the entries everyone, and nice to hear from readers I haven’t known by name before. The draw is open for another week so plenty of time for others to enter.

  10. Derek said,

    I’d love to be entered. I’m a bookseller in Toronto at the flagship store of our national chain. Thanks to your blog, the Truth Commissioner has had my name on the Staff Recommends table for months.

  11. My Mum is Belfast born and bred and although she’d moved to England by then, I’d like to read this very much – please include me.

  12. Alan said,

    John,

    Seems like an interesting book: please enter me in your draw.

    Thanks,
    Alan

  13. Elizabeth Thomas said,

    Swallowing the Sun would look very good sidling up next to my copy of The Truth Commissioner!

  14. Aqui do Brasil venho acompanhando com interesse este blog. Aguardo a edição em lingua portuguesa da obra. Saudações. Domingos.

  15. JRSM said,

    This reminded me to order ‘The Truth Commissioner’ from the Book Depository. Please chuck me in the draw as well. Also, a vaguely relevant quote from (I think) Bill Cosby, in response to “To thine own self be true.”: “But what if you’re an asshole?”

  16. John Self said,

    Aqui do Brasil venho acompanhando com interesse este blog. Aguardo a edição em lingua portuguesa da obra. Saudações.

    This message, from what I can tell by Google Translate’s rendition, is looking forward to the Portuguese translation of Swallowing the Sun. You might have a while to wait, Domingos. Meanwhile, I’ll not enter you in the draw.

  17. Lee Monks said,

    Yes please, John. I only have four twillion books in the taunt pile so why not have a punt at another?

  18. Colette Jones said,

    Please drop my name in the hat. Thanks!

  19. Hello John,
    Put me in the hat for the book if you please. The only books based in the North or by Northern writers that I have read have been factual. I’ve actually read little or no Irish writing outside of plays and poetry and that was back when it was required by my school’s syllabus so it’ll be a change for me.
    Thanks,
    Slán, Nicola.

  20. Fay said,

    You are generous to make this an international drawing. Thanks and please include me.

  21. Carole said,

    Hi John
    I would like to be included in the draw. I read ‘The Truth Commissioner’ having read your review and definitely want to read more David Park. Carole

  22. Kerry said,

    John,

    Please enter me in the drawing. You have a way with Jedi mind tricks, making me put a very high percentage of the books you review on my “to be bought and devoured” list. Thanks for that.

    Kerry

  23. [...] 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 [...]

  24. John Self said,

    Doesn’t look as though we are going to have any more entrants, so I have drawn a random number from the depths of the internet… and the winner (out of 19 entrants) is number 16 – Nicola Conway! Well done, Nicola. I’ve DMed you on Twitter to get your address.

    Thanks to everyone for the interest in the book.

  25. John Self said,

    Bloomsbury have kindly offered seven more copies of Swallowing the Sun to add to the giveaway, so I’ve drawn more numbers from the random number generator, and they were 1 (Steerforth), 3 (Trevor), 4 (deucekindred), 5 (Teresa), 12 (Elizabeth Thomas), 15 (Colette Jones) and 19 (Kerry). I’ve emailed you all for postal addresses. Well done!

  26. Trevor said,

    Woo-hoo!

  27. Kerry said,

    Top of the World! Thanks, John.

  28. deucekindred said,

    Hurrah! :) Like I said the minute i receive it, i’ll review it.

  29. kimbofo said,

    Don’t enter me in the draw — too late anyway — but I just wanted to ask if you knew of any other writers from Northern Ireland. I have a penchant for Irish fiction but they all pretty much come from the Republic, with the exception of Jennifer Johnston, who I believe lives in Derry. David Park’s “Swallowing the Sun” sounds good, but the cover is a kind of put off for me — not sure why, perhaps the girls shoes make it look like a potential chick-lit novel?

  30. kimbofo: The shoes actually are important to the story of the novel, but you don’t find out why until well along. Don’t let the cover put you off.

  31. kimbofo said,

    KevinfromCanada: I shamelessly judge books by covers, but I note the version being sold on The Book Depository site is rather different http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/book/9780747574170/Swallowing-the-Sun

  32. John Self said,

    That’s the cover of the hardback, bizarrely.

    kimbofo, as to NI novelists, the only ones I can suggest are Brian Moore and Bernard MacLaverty, both mentioned in the opening paragraph of my review above. Both are in my view of international stature. With Moore, probably start with The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, with MacLaverty, Lamb – their debut novel in each case. Both are fairly well known so you may know them already. Alternatively try some Robert McLiam Wilson (his Eureka Street is well regarded) or Glenn Patterson.

  33. kimbofo said,

    Cheers, John. Have a couple of Moores and a MacLaverty in my reading queue already, so perhaps it’s time I dug them out.

  34. John Self said,

    Thanks dk – glad you liked it, and more so than you would have ten years ago.

    By the way if you log into your WordPress account before leaving comments here, your blog will show up as a link in your name.

  35. Kerry said,

    John,

    Thanks again for running the contest. This is my review, my part of the bargain.

    I will be picking up another David Park book (probably “The Truth Commissioner”), because he is a talented writer, able to craft prose like: “…a skinny shake of a dog…”, “…The boats feel like bookmarks on the pages of different types of lives…”, and “…As Roberts moves to the door she watches the thin spray of crumbs fall silently to the floor. She wonders if the biscuit was soft…” His writing is evocative and tight. He describes characters and their relationships with one another in a pleasingly efficient way. (Both of the following are from early in the novel, before the Warings’ own personal Troubles.)

    Martin and his wife Alison: “She…tells herself that she should wait up for him to hear him say, as he always does, ‘Give me some of your heat,’ but knows already that she is slipping towards sleep. And now if anyone were to ask her, she would say that’s all that marriage is about – a sharing of heat, trying to protect each other from the cold outside.”

    Martin and his daughter Rachel: “So why doesn’t he come in now, sit on her bed and give her some advice? Tell her the things he knows. About how to find someone to love. When you give yourself. She swivels on her chair to signal him in, but there is no one there and when she turns the music down, she hears only the sound of running water. She lifts the little glass dome, shakes it softly and watches the snow fall.”

    Park shifts perspective from character to character, moving almost seemlessly from one character to the next. Though this is by no means a stream-of-consciousness novel, having just finished Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves”, it struck me how Park uses a similar shifting-of-perspectives in a much more conventional manner. Woolf demonstrated how the object of one’s study can often be illuminated and understood much more fully if given the multitude of dimensions shifting perspectives allow. Park has taken those lessons, from Woolf or whomever, and is working them into a pleasing, revealing style all his own. (I say “working” based on John’s and Kevin’s indications that he has further refined the method in “The Truth Commissioner”.)

    Park’s book also reminded me a bit of Bulgakov’s “The White Guard”. Like Bulgakov’s work, “Swallowing the Sun” is very much tied to both place and outside events and, yet, not “about” the place or the political events so central to that place. The novels are both about relationships and, in particular, the relationships in a single family. I will not say that Park has achieved with “Swallowing the Sun” what Bulgakov did with “The White Guard”, but Park’s ability to evoke the psychology and emotions of a time without writing about the politics of the time was, for me, reminiscent of Bulgakov. Just as you need not know or care anything about civil war in Ukraine to fall in love with the Turbin family, you need not know or care about the Troubles to fall in love with the Warings or to feel you know them.

    And that, I think, is the power of the book. Park draws convincing characters with understanable motivations and psychologies. By the end of this book, you know this family, appreciate their foibles, and are a bit disappointed to have to leave their company by finishing the novel. Of course, you also learn something of the politics and, more interestingly, the psychology of the political turmoil that has scarred that particular geographic landscape, but the pleasure, the heart of the novel, is the exploration of family and the human condition.

    So, John, though I do think familiarity with the place adds something, as it does with any book, the story and the writing transcend the local. I would be willing to bet that Park has added more to your appreciation of the lemonade factory, than the lemonade factory added to your appreciation of “Swallowing the Sun.” The book is not without minor flaws, but it is a fine effort. Fine enough I want to explore more of his work.

    Thank you, John, for exposing me to David Park, an author I likely would not have found on my own.

  36. Kerry; An excellent and instructive review of a book that I liked very much. If every winner of a book did such a good job, I don’t think I’d be buying very many books. Thank you in spades.

    Kevin

  37. John Self said,

    Kerry, I was away when you posted your review, hence the delay in responding, but just let me echo Kevin’s words and thank you for taking the time to express your thoughts so eloquently. I’m delighted to have introduced you to Park.

  38. Trevor said,

    I just finished the book too, John. My review will be on my site Tuesday of next week. Thanks for the book. I’ve been very curious about Park, and I have to say, he should be better known. I thought the book fantastic.

  39. Trevor said,

    Not Tuesday, Monday. The review will be posted on Monday.

  40. Kerry said,

    John and Kevin,

    Thank you both. I really enjoyed the book and am pleased to be able to share my thoughts with you. Now, John, you have convinced me that I have to make work of reading the books you recommend. Your taste is impeccable.

    Kerry

  41. [...] in Proxopera (a fine little book which is going up in my estimation the more I think about it) and Swallowing the Sun, let’s get hardcore with Susan McKay’s report on thirty years of violent death in [...]

  42. Teresa said,

    At long last, I’ve read and written a review of Swallowing the Sun. It’s as good as your review led me to expect, so thanks for introducing me to Park’s work.

    http://shelflove.wordpress.com/2009/08/01/swallowing-the-sun-review/

  43. diane said,

    This book sounds so amazing; thanks so much for bringing it to my attention :)

  44. John Self said,

    You’re welcome, diane. If you read it I hope you like it – and I can vouch for Park’s The Truth Commissioner also. I’ve hit a bit of a run of Northern Ireland themed books this year…

  45. [...] praised other novels by David Park on this blog. Here is my review of his latest, The Light of Amsterdam, [...]


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