The Big Snow by David Park

When Ulster froze and inhibitions melted
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Something over 60 years ago there was a brief vogue for the "theme novel". Such books, which have not generally survived the ravages of time, tended to avoid linear narrative, offering instead a series of more or less discrete stories brought together not by the characters within them but by a supposedly unifying subject: "the marriage problem", say, or "the modern girl". It was a difficult trick to pull off, if only because of the sense of untidy human experience neatly fenced off behind strict procedural palings.

David Park's novel – if it is a novel – is only very indirectly about marriage or, indeed, any other kind of problem. All the same, the effect he aims at is one that a Somerset Maugham or an Alec Waugh, to name a couple of exponents of the "theme novel", would have recognised. The thread is not a particular emotion or institution, but simply climactic. The individual pieces that make up The Big Snow are linked only by the arctic conditions that affected Northern Ireland early in 1963.

Snow, of course, has been one of Irish literature's symbolist fixtures since James Joyce wrote his famous lines (in The Dead) about the flakes falling out over the "mutinous" Shannon. Park's five storylines allow for a wide range of scene and incident. In the first, a middle-aged schoolteacher throws wide the windows over the corpse of his newly-dead wife. In the second, a teenage student responds ineffectively to the lure of a dazzling older woman.

There follow evocative fragments about a deluded old spinster going out to buy a wedding dress in anticipation of her marriage, and a martinet headmaster in a snow-bound house warming to the attractions of a female colleague. Finally, at novella length, comes a tightly written piece of police procedural in which an apprentice detective constable realises that there is more to a murder case than his grizzled superior is prepared to admit.

The formal connections between these pieces are perilously slight. Peter, the student of Snow Trails, ends up helping his undertaker father with the funeral of the woman whose death takes up the story before. The would-be bride running into the freezing street in The Wedding Dress is the subject of a brief exchange between the policemen in the story that follows.

Elsewhere, the links are merely those of community, of people hunkering down in the face of elemental forces, caught in a brief window of time where normal arrangements are mysteriously relaxed. Upright Mr Peel, the headmaster of Against the Cold who is steadily enticed into one compromising situation after another (the fireside tea, the tot of whisky, the bed made up in the front room), falls crapulously into plump Miss Lewis's embrace, knowing that the self-justifying mantra of the story's title "made everything all right".

Inevitably, in a work set 40 years ago in Ulster, one looks for the lurking spectre of sectarianism. Again, the sparse handful of formal references – Sergeant Gracy reminiscing about an IRA bomb that nearly blew up his station back in the 1950s – are the decoy to what eventually forms a silent tableau of Protestant Belfast, its Anglophile businessmen, small traders and administrative outposts. There is a wonderful scene in "Snow Trails" in which Peter listens to his shopkeeper parents start on a rambling conversation about the weather, trade prospects, the next day's funeral. Nothing of the faintest consequence is said, but the reader is conscious of an entire world sliding into place before them on the hearth.

If The Big Snow has a flaw, it is the disproportionate length and flaring surfaces of the title story, which sit oddly alongside the brevity and emotional subtlety of what goes before. But this is not to detract from the book's achievement. I know nothing of David Park's circumstances, but the fact that each of his last three books has been brought out by a different imprint does not suggest an easy progress through the swamps of contemporary publishing. It is time that readers, reviewers and prize juries reached out to smooth his path.

DJ Taylor