Swallowing the Sun by David Park

Golden girl comes a cropper
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The Independent Culture


David Park's last novel, The Big Snow, was set in the eerie Belfast winter of 1962-3. Though moving through a contemporary Ulster weighing up the pros and cons of the "peace dividend", its successor is quite as backward-looking, obsessed with the brutal world of the old Loyalist estates on which its hero, Martin Waring, was if not raised then narrowly allowed to grow up. There are several symbolic points of continuity, too - notably the glass-enclosed snow storm which Martin's 17-year-old daughter Rachel keeps on the desk in her bedroom. Meanwhile, an emotional freeze-up lurks just around the corner.

Rachel is the hub on which the novel turns: a clever sixth-former for whom prodigious academic feats are predicted. Her museum attendant father Martin can only marvel at the distance travelled since his wretched upbringing. His wife Alison is nobly resolved to fund Rachel's destiny by adding a second part-time job to her existing stints as a school dinner lady. Much-bullied fat Tom, her younger brother, is secretly resentful of the golden girl who gets all the plaudits.

Silent and solitary in the museum, frightened by the hordes of weekending one-parent families, Martin has his own fixations, in particular one of the exhibits, an Egyptian mummy on whose lid is inscribed a prayer asking good fortune from the God of the Sun and a picture of the goddess represented as a beautiful girl. Gripped by an urgency he cannot explain, he ends up in bed with a hippy chick named Lorrie, come to install one of the exhibitions. To his neurotic, guilt-ridden mind, this betrayal of wifely trust is the first step in the downhill stagger than constitutes the book's second half.

Like Takabuti, swallowing the sun, Rachel gulps down an ecstasy tablet in a nightclub, with dire consequences. Returning to Loyalist territory to acquaint dead-loss brother Rob with the news, Martin re-encounters leather-jacketed Jaunty, a boyhood acquaintance from the UFF, now transformed by time and politics - the paramilitaries have sidestepped into racketeering - into a criminal Mr Big. Martin's quest to discover who provided Rachel with the drug is instantly solved; the gun left in his mother's loft and the thriller-ish but intensely symbolic finale can be glimpsed a mile off. Yet the real distinction of Swallowing The Sun lies in the brooding gaze turned on the Warings in their hour of crisis. The conclusion finds Martin making his final preparations in the after-hours museum while Alison and Tom are en route to Scotland. Alison resolves to try for an office job; Tom acknowledges that his plump body is holding him back from where he wants to go. Like nearly everything else in the book, this is perfectly judged and horribly convincing.

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