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.
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.
Who’d be a publisher? Having to shout equally loud about all the books you publish, it becomes impossible for browsers to tell the good from the bad. Maybe there should be a key – a winking eye on the spine, say – to tell us what’s not really worth bothering with. The thought occurred as I was reading David Park’s new novel The Truth Commissioner, a book worthy of the highest praise; and yet I know I would never have heard of it, let alone bought it, if I hadn’t noticed that the book launch was taking place in my home city of Belfast, Park being a fellow Northern Irishman – and that in optimistic preparation, my local Waterstone’s had a couple of hundred copies stacked high everywhere I looked. I don’t know whether this is cheering, because I did discover it, or depressing, because of all the others I haven’t.
I don’t know whether The Truth Commissioner is cheering or depressing either: it’s solemn of outlook all right, but such a rare pleasure to read that it sent shivers of delight right up through me from the pages. It takes a situation ripe with emotional possibilities and does it every justice.
The setting is Northern Ireland, home of long memories and extended news bulletins, where at present there is momentum for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to help draw a line under decades of conflict. Where other writers might feel that the move from violence to politics robs the subject of power, Park’s stroke of brilliance is to recognise that it is these moments of change – where attention has moved on but the story is not yet over – which offer the most dramatic potential, and in the book the Commission has been established. Some people want to forgive and forget, perhaps because their status now is one they don’t want to lose; others want to remember and still demand justice. Overlooking them all are the British and Irish politicians who most of all want to feel the hand of history on their shoulder, and will permit principles to erode in order to keep the process on track.
The first two-thirds of the book moves unhurriedly, with 60-page portraits of four men: Henry Stanfield, the Truth Commissioner; Francis Gilroy, former IRA man and now Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly; James Fenton, retired detective who will be able to provide some unwelcome facts to the Commission; and Danny, a young Irishman in America who is about to make a commitment to his girlfriend. Where these scenes excel is in filling in the truth of the men: Stanfield’s adulterous past, estranged daughter and weakness for younger women; Gilroy’s embarrassment at his lack of cultural knowledge which leads him to surreptitiously read Philip Larkin poems, and his new understanding of the fear of sudden murder which he himself once instilled in others; Fenton’s need to drive across Europe “where he’s unknown and no more visible than a grain of sand on the world’s shore” to atone for his past; Danny’s mistaken belief that his only worries are for the future. Stanfield in particular is a fascinating character, a perfect example of the type of person who comes to hate their old homeland after being away – Belfast is a place of “self-consoling mythology” – and who has some unwelcome observations to make about the political process:
Now the world doesn’t care any more because there are bigger wars and better terrors and all that remains is this final tidying up … He has even met a few individuals already who clearly have become emotionally dependent on their grief, who have jerry-built a kind of lop-sided, self-pitying life out of it and are unwilling to risk having even that taken from them, in exchange for their day in the sun.
These sections are written with beautiful poise and elegance, and although the sinuous style seemed a little similar from character to character, it can only be to Park’s credit that I found myself each time unwilling to leave the man whose life had been laid out before me, and keen to hear more of his story. The characters are fully fleshed, struggling to maintain their sense of self even as they understand that their place is ultimately in someone else’s story, with their “inability to resist or stop the flow.”
Although urgently political in background, the stories at the heart of The Truth Commissioner are human ones, stories of exertion of and submission to power, and of “the curse of memory.” In the last third the pace picks up and the story becomes almost a thriller – well, I was pretty thrilled anyway – without sacrificing its grounded sincerity. All this is surrounded by a linked introduction and coda which opens the book on a note of high drama and ends it with something approaching serenity.
Truth is a relative concept, and personal, and perhaps I am swayed by my knowledge of the places and processes described in the book, like an excited local pointing out his street on a TV drama. For me, nonetheless, the truth is that David Park has written what looks like the first essential novel of 2008.