The Big Snow

By David Park

I am writing this review while the snow silently falls over Belfast, leaving the city looking peaceful and picturesque. I remember ‘the big snow’ of 1963 when we had to dig our way out of our house, life came to a standstill, there were power-cuts, no transport and no deliveries. Adults were aghast at the arctic siege; we kids felt liberated.

Six years ago in this paper I raved about David Park’s last novel, ‘Stone Kingdoms’, which was mostly set in Africa. Park is the quiet man of northern writers. I have never heard of him appearing on an arts show, giving a reading or reviewing for the papers. The author of three previous novels and a book of short stories, his latest novel is set in Belfast and County Down in February 1963 as the blizzards, as nature, take over. He certainly evokes the general mood and memory of that time.

In five separate narratives the characters are all struggling under the same blanket of snow (though they also struggle in an icy atmosphere of understated fundamentalism and bigotry). Some of the narratives are tenuously connected by time and place or by the fact that characters have heard about the murder of a young woman, Alma Simons, in Belfast. Park focuses on the subjects of love and loss, obsession, morals and propriety and madness (including a haunting story on the legacy of incest).

The eponymous story of the title, at 140 pages in length, is a murder mystery, featuring the rooky Detective Constable Swift from a middle-class background who is resented by the older, crustier, brutal RUC Detective Sergeant Gracey. Gracey, who is a bit of a wit, believes the murder of the young woman to be an open-and-shut case but Swift’s persistence reveals the Belfast milieu of the period – city hall corruption, the boxing demi-monde, the back street abortionist’s.

Swift is driven by a mixture of motives: his desire to disprove his father’s lack of faith in him, a quest for justice and revenge based on a perverse affection he feels for the murdered girl. His obsession with the dead girl, which involves him climbing into her empty bed and wearing her ring, and his reveries about what she could have meant to him, and him to her, cause the story to wobble a bit in the middle and is justified only if it is the author’s intention to throw us off track. Nevertheless, this is only a minor criticism.

In another story a husband, Martin Stevenson, is on death watch at the bedside of his wife, Hannah, and lies to her about a journey they will make across the USA. He wonders at parochial Ireland and how different their lives might have been, and whether she could have escaped her illness, had they lived elsewhere: ‘Did where you live shape the limits of what your life could be? Did living in a small place make it inescapably small, unable to grow and expand?’

In the next story, ‘Snow Trails’, a first-year university student who helps out in his father’s hardware store, and who will bury Hannah Stevenson, secretly falls in love with a cultured, married woman, Mrs Richmond, who has just moved into a nearby manor house. He is at that cusp when he realises that the ‘world was beautiful, the world was strange. And there was something happening to him.’ Injured whilst helping Mr Richmond, whose car has crashed in a snow drift, he ends up spending the night in their house. His jealousy is intense when during the night he hears the couple making love.

Park has been widely praised for his lyricism and this book is peppered with some brilliant imagery: a tree suddenly seems to shiver, ‘shaking loose the scent of pine’; ‘The wind rose a little and smoked the snow ahead’; ‘The snow was coming down in big feathery flakes as if the fat pillow of sky had been slit open and shaken empty.’

Another good book under the belt of this humble man.