It seems to be a convention that when you are writing about Graham Swift, somewhere in the first paragraph or two you refer to “Waterland, his best book.” It would be a great thing to kick over the traces and declare Waterland a mere bagatelle beside Swift’s new novel; unfortunately, that is impossible. So, let us have it over with. Swift’s third novel was set in the east of England, in the Fens. Its narrator, a history teacher, brooded on his family, his adolescence, on the influences that created him. Stories of his own locality were interwoven with stories of the great world, and the patterns of the past informed every event. Waterland was a book which both reassured and captivated the reader by its exact sense of place and the solidity of its physical world: a moving meditation on the meaning of landscape and history, carefully if not elegantly written, exact and well-arranged; a book both modest and luminous.
After this book’s huge critical and popular success, expectations for Swift’s fourth novel were extremely high. Out of This World was the story of a war photographer, Harry Beech; his father, an arms manufacturer; his daughter Sophie, damaged and depressed, talking to her analyst in New York. Like much of Swift’s work it was concerned with complex and repeating family patterns, the sins of one generation visited on the next. Guilt and selfdoubt furnished the interior landscape. The exterior landscape was a public one: Belsen, Vietnam, the Falklands. It was an austere book, which yielded little to even the most willing and receptive reader; it encapsulated large questions in sharp images, as if they were seen through the war photographer’s eye, but its characters seemed types, walking arguments. It moved the critics to respect rather than rapture.
Ten years ago, before Waterland, Graham Swift published a collection of short stories called Learning to Swim. It is interesting to read them at this point and to see how his work has grown from them, how his preoccupations have evolved. They are thoughtful stories, analytical, discursive, with a surplus of introspection over action. They reach out beyond their own confines, as if they were trying to become novels; which indeed they are. Fear—sometimes lifelong—is a theme: fear of water sometimes, of all the treacherous seductive undercurrents of the unconscious mind. The stories are about family bonds, ancestry, dubious paternity, marital infidelity, buried secrets come to light. In Ever After these themes have matured; it seems Swift has been brooding a long while on this novel, much longer than the four years since he last published.
The central character in Ever After is a middle-aged man called Bill Unwin. His opening statement is this: “These are, I should warn you, the words of a dead man.” It is a portentous beginning, which falls away at once into the rambling and the ridiculous; so, within the first page, we learn the essential things about him. For …