Swallowing the Sun, by David Park

Rising above the timeless desolation
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The Independent Culture

Among the star exhibits in the Ulster Museum in Belfast is an Egyptian mummy named Takabuti, which exerts a tremendous fascination over schoolchildren. Takabuti's face is "black and wizened like a walnut", but on the coffin lid is an image of a goddess with the sun in her hair. The whole thing is about preserving and assimilating the past, as well as rising above it, which ties in gracefully with David Park's theme in this novel.

Park's protagonist is Martin Waring, a security guard at the museum who has achieved a precarious felicity in his domestic and working life after an inauspicious upbringing in Loyalist East Belfast. An appalling father, a miserable mother and worthless younger brother are among the encumbrances of Martin's past; but he has a happy marriage, with a couple of children, Rachel, a star pupil and potential Oxbridge candidate, and her less satisfactory younger brother Tom, an overweight computer addict and victim of bullying.

All this is sketched deftly; by the end of part one, the scene is well set for the distressing events which follow. This novel - Park's fifth - is constructed with great intensity and delicacy. At the same time, the author is fully in touch with the roughness and corruption of back streets awaiting demolition, and the replacement gimcrack housing estates: "The community centre's roof is circled with barbed wire and on the tiles in large letters someone has painted UFF".

The setting is Belfast, post-ceasefires, when paramilitary activity has, for the most part, given way to a culture of drug-dealing which enables an obdurate thuggery to go on prevailing. Other changes have overtaken broken Belfast: "Everywhere he looks there is new building, a new skyline of hotels and offices and here, by the river which his childhood associates with piles of rusting scrap metal and the army of shipyard workers, are new apartments tracing the dark snake of the water."

The final part concerns a personal crusade as vehement grief propels the central character into dodgy and dangerous areas: the attic of a derelict house with arsonists below, the swimming pool of a private leisure centre, with a gun in his hand and police on the way. But the drift of the novel is to underscore the irrelevance of incidents such as these in the face of a timeless desolation. The tone throughout is more elegiac than hard-boiled, for all the street-aggression which erupts in shouted imprecations ("I'm goin' to break your fuckin' arms!").

Desperate situations foster desperate actions. Within its stringent compass, Swallowing the Sun is a powerful, economical account of an unbearable turn of events, with a final set-piece bringing the narrative back to the museum and its connotations. This approximates, if only in the realm of the imagination, to a state of fitness and tranquillity which evil circumstances had snuffed out.

The reviewer's biography of Brian Moore is published by Bloomsbury

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