Winter 2002/2003

The Big Snow

David Park

Bloomsbury ($24.95)

by Peter Ritter

“The snow was general all over Ireland,” Joyce wrote in “The Dead.” And so it is in David Park's The Big Snow, a work, which, though set in Ulster in 1963, shares more than atmospheric conditions with Joyce's celebrated novella. Here is the mood of muffled and inchoate longing; the stinging exposure of lives stunted by provincialism; and the evocation of a pre-modern Irish landscape, which, with its “dark central plain and treeless hills,” seems to be dissolving even as it unfolds.

In form, The Big Snow is less a traditional novel than a series of vignettes connected by gossamer filaments of theme and tone. The snow, symbolic of stasis in "The Dead," here becomes a catalytic force akin to the apocryphal Santa Ana winds of Southern California, loosening inhibitions and blurring social strictures. In "Against the Cold," for instance, a comically prudish middle-aged school master finds unlikely refuge from the blizzard in the house of a female colleague. As the night wears on and the snow piles up outside, the two begin an achingly tentative courtship. "Special circumstances," the teacher reasons to himself as they finally embrace: "the unexpected welcoming flicker of lights in distant windows, the promise of rest and shelter."

Elsewhere, the snow becomes a symbol of suffocating isolation: A man whose wife has died during the storm longs to confess an ancient infidelity; an old maid, half-crazed with loneliness, scours the snow-bound city for a perfect wedding dress. In "Snow Trails," a vignette with shades of Joyce's "Araby," a shopkeeper's son finds himself irresistibly drawn to a sophisticated married woman who flits briefly through his rural village. He, like Joyce's narrator, sees in her the possibility of escape from the banality of his lot. When an accident of the weather strands him in the woman's manor house, he finds himself eavesdropping on her lovemaking, listening to "her voice fluttering like the silken wings of a moth and coming closer all the time to the core of the flame." The story's climax-pun intended-recalls Leopold Bloom's infamous seaside interlude in Ulysses.

The final story in The Big Snow, a sinuous police-procedural set in Belfast, seems at first to strike a discordant note with these finely modulated tone poems. In it, a young, idealistic constable named Swift-an homage, certainly, to another great Irish wit-is drawn into a murder investigation after discovering an anonymous woman's body. As Swift lurches through the back alleys and sectarian haunts of Belfast, the ubiquitous snow casts its spell: "All around him the city was transformed into something only partly recognizable. Familiar landscapes were smoothed and rendered indistinguishable and everywhere a great weight of white pressed down on the buildings, and the snow had a shiny brilliance to it that the grime of the city had been unable to consume."

If this closing novella seems at odds with the muted emotion of the book's earlier stories, it does share with the rest of The Big Snow an acute sensitivity to human fragility. In this, the timbre of Park's work most closely resembles the elegiac swoon which concludes "The Dead"-an image of snow "falling through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end."

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Winter 2002/2003 Table of Contents