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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
Swallowing The Sun
by Stephen Douds
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Imperfect, elegiac but very definitely of the moment, David Park's recent novel is the story of one man's journey from a brutal childhood in East Belfast to an apparently better life as an attendant at the Ulster Museum with the obligatory two kids, working wife, mortgage and mid-life crisis.
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Only Martin Waring's mid-life crisis is not some fleeting sense of worthlessness or temporary angst about his career. His daughter beautiful and bright is clearly the centre of Martin's life and indeed family life. His teenage son is a fat bullied slob whose only interest is in the computer games he plays as a diversion from living up to his big sister's achievements. When his daughter, on the eve of a new life at Oxbridge, makes the one big mistake of her life it has fatal consequences.
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One of the flaws in an otherwise beautifully structured book is the question of who exactly the central character is: Martin or his daughter Rachel? She is the focal point of the story, the person around whom all action revolves. What happens to her determines how the narrative unfolds. Like many other young people in the book her brother Tom with his feelings of underachievement and self-hatred, the guys who bully him at school, her bright and breezy and oh-so-adult sixth-form friends Rachel is an entirely believable, realistic and engaging character. David Park the school teacher has clearly observed many of his pupils over the years and is a master at observing the minutiae of teenage life in his novels. His detailed description of the contents of Rachel's room as observed by her father, and which come to form an unexpected climax to the novel, is as emotional a list of adolescent belongings and identity as can be imagined.
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Early in the novel there are passages which are almost hymns of praise to the Ulster Museum, the place where Martin keeps a guard on the exhibits and an eye on those who turn up to gape at them. The past is safely and identifiably preserved there but how do individuals preserve their past: or in the case of Martin who experienced great brutality at the hands of his father, how do they escape the past? As the novel progress we see Martin forced to confront parts of his past as his daughter aborts her future. He fears for the future and in particular he fears for his daughter who has travelled further from him than he could ever have hoped, with the prospect of an Oxbridge education just around the corner.
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Martin has flawed relationships with women and one wonders if Park has intentionally created a working-class Loyalist hero who cannot relate well to women, or if this is something more sub-conscious. The reader is left to speculate as to whether Martin's estrangement from his daughter is entirely because of her academic achievements or partly because there is some unbridgeable gender gap. Similarly Park has his museum hero remove his wife to her sisters in Scotland at the end of the novel as he single-handedly deals with the consequences of the family tragedy. And then there is the despising of his mother for her lack of courage in standing up to a bullying father. Note to feminists and gender scholars there's a lot in Swallowing the Sun to keep you all busy for a long time.
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Like post post-ceasefire writers in the North, including Glenn Patterson in his recent book That Which Was, the new Belfast cannot be mentioned without the clichéd use of how there are bright new buildings on the waterfront, how Belfast is now a city of bright neon, youthful energy and lurking danger. Chaps, lets leave the plugs for 'bright new Belfast' to the City Council and the PR spivs.
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Perhaps the greatest cliché of all in an otherwise wonderful novel is the world from which Martin Waring emerged, and to which ultimately he returns in his search for answers. The Loyalist estates of violent childhood and dysfunctional adulthood, where fear for the future is endemic and the paramilitaries rule.
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Nit-picking aside, Swallowing the Sun is still the best local novel of the year and one of the best for many years. David Park has again demonstrated that he is a skilful, serious and moving writer. The mystery remains as to why he is so often over-looked.
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