Graham Swift
Graham Swift; drawing by David Levine

In 1983 a book by the young writer Graham Swift was published in England that caused a stir, even a storm, of interest. Waterland was like a magical island that had risen overnight out of a flat and watery marshland, making one rub one’s eyes in disbelief. The story he told was indeed set in that very English landscape, the fens of East Anglia, but the way in which he told it had more to do with the mythical—and steamily tropical—Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez, the gray Baltic and bleak Gdansk of Günter Grass, and, going further back in time, the past-haunted Yoknapatawpha County of William Faulkner. The links were not made when it came out but to reread Waterland now is to have them staring out at you; these writers did not have a geographical territory in common, but they had together created a new literary territory that did in time become vividly recognizable.

What characterized them was the way in which they took the traditional commitment of the novelist to the particular character but set it within a large, spreading social and political network, used local folklore and gave it mythic overtones, created intricate patterns by the repetitive use of themes and images, blurred the distinctions between a real and a dream world, history and the imagination, and made room for both the incredible and the commonplace in capacious works that eluded traditional definitions and defied rules of shape, plot, and design.

There was also the style they employed to encompass such breadth and scope of material—now short and laconic, now rambling and meandering like a river through reeds and rivulets. A single book could be both tragic and comic because it was so panoramic, filled with contradictions that gave it narrative tension and reflective of a reality that was paradoxical, pied, varied, affected by light, shade, time, and memory.

Waterland took in several centuries of history, incorporated precise knowledge of local industry, flora and fauna, in particular the European eel, Anguilla anguilla, and the myths that enveloped them like river mists. Swift evoked the network of rivers, canals, and locks that create the fens, as well as the ale-brewing business and the Atkinson family involved with it, building up a fine and resonant hymn to the study of history, for

only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. But man—let me offer you a definition—is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes, he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there’s a story, it’s all right.

Waterland was a triumph, and Swift knew better than to try and repeat it. In his subsequent books, he returned to his earlier mode of writing fiction and shrank the canvas, choosing to focus on particular individuals who peopled a more realistic, less mysterious and imaginative landscape—urban or suburban scenes, gritty or banal, easily recognizable. Over the course of six such books, he also pared down the language from the fluid, expansive flow in Waterland to the increasingly brief sentences and sparse vocabulary of his new novel, The Light of Day. Compare, for instance, a paragraph chosen at random from Waterland:

Once upon a time there was a river which flowed into another river which one day men would call the Rhine. But in those days there were no men, no names and no North Sea and no island called Great Britain and the only beings who knew this river which flowed into the nameless Rhine were the fishes which swam up and down it and the giant creatures which browsed in its shallows and whose fantastic forms we might never have guessed at were it not for the fact that now and then they lay down to die in circumstances that would preserve their fossilised bones and so, millions of years later, become a subject for human inquiry….

with this one from The Light of Day:

If you have everything, why go and risk it all? The good life. That house up there, through the trees, in burglar-alarm country. Why go asking for trouble? All her own bloody fault.

But for pity’s sake. Or charity’s. Since wasn’t that the point? If you have everything, then shouldn’t you be able to afford that? And to look out from your window at the world now and then?

The narrative tone is no longer that of the bard-like omniscient narrator; it is that of his characters, a technique he perfected with Last Orders (which won the Booker Prize), an account of a party of hard-drinking men who are on their way to Margate Pier to cast into the sea the ashes of one of their band, a deceased butcher who made this outlandish request at his death and whom they honor by stopping at as many pubs as possible along the way.


Swift’s characters tend to be precisely those you might run into in a pub or at the butcher’s, in a village or a suburb: they are familiar, recognizable, even boring. Not for him—or no longer—the exotic or the surreal. He uses the material closest to hand. It is as if he has been given a suburban garden to tend: some narrow enclosure walled in with brick and with only poor, gravelly soil, then sets himself to seeing what he can do with it, what he can plant that might assume form, shape, and color. He digs, he plants, and he waters, and asks you, the reader, to enter this small, enclosed world and appreciate it as he so clearly does.

It is Swift’s sheer, unstoppable—and at times unfathomable—affection for his characters, his tender feelings toward their everydayness, their ordinariness, their small, crippled, unlovely romances, that makes one follow their stories, commonplace or not. He makes one care about them as one cares about one’s neighbors, the people one sees working in their gardens, wrapping up our bread or fish at a shop counter, selling us our bus tickets, and simply providing us with a sense of their society.

As Virginia Woolf demonstrated in, for instance, Mrs. Dalloway, the lives we are privileged to look into—of, say, a madman on a bench in the park or a woman buying flowers for a party—gain an importance we do not otherwise ascribe to them, but only if we stop, pay attention, and begin to understand.

Swift is a writer who does just that. His choice of characters is so strange as to veer on the eccentric. In The Light of Day, for instance, we encounter George Webb, once of the London police force but retired now in some disgrace for rigging a case against a criminal and repeat offender he was determined to see incarcerated. He has begun a second career as a private detective and occupies a modest office above a “tanning centre” on the high street in Wimbledon. He specializes in matrimonial cases:

I could be some high-street solicitor. A fountain-pen in my fingers. Doctor, solicitor—marriage guidance counsellor. You have to be a bit of all three.

The usual look of plucked-up courage, swallowed-back hesitation, of being somewhere they’d rather not be.

“My husband is seeing another woman.”

There aren’t so many ways of saying it—but you have to look as if you haven’t heard it said in every possible way. They’re all unique: the only one to have to come to the doctor with this rare complaint.

“I see. I’m sorry. Can I offer you some coffee—tea?”

Then there is the secretary, Rita, in her pink sweater (angora?), coming in with the tea at the discreetly right moment, reminding him—just by wearing that pale pink twin set (wasn’t that what they used to be called?)—of the proprieties, of how to conduct oneself in an office setting, how to exercise control. This Rita had once lost control—but regained it and survived. She is tough and indomitable, not just for herself but for her boss, the increasingly fragile George.

If the heroine, Sarah, hasn’t quite the same coarse grain, the same rough nubble as these two characters, it is because she is cast in the role of the inamorata, the desideratum. She is the wife scorned by her husband, a gynecologist who has fallen deeply in love with Kristina Lazic, a Croatian refugee from Dubrovnik whom Sarah had taken into their house out of charity. Now Sarah comes to George’s office to ask him to tail her husband, who has promised her he will take the girl to the airport and see her onto the plane to Geneva, the right and proper place for a refugee, and make sure he does not get on the plane himself but turns around and returns to his hearth, home, and legal partner. After all, the gynecologist

wasn’t a “womanizer.” Only professionally. There wasn’t a history. Just the history of them being a happy couple with good careers…and…”pretty well everything we could want….”

So George undertakes to make sure he returns safely to the doorstep of their secure, comfortable home and secure, comfortable lives:

Don’t knock it…. This home-and-garden land, this never-never land where nothing much is ever meant to happen. These Wimbledons and Chislehurts. What else is civilization for?

And George is hired to keep it that way; he even prides himself on it:


At night, walking the beat,…I used to get a feeling, like a dream, that I was the only one on watch. As if I’d personally put the world to bed and it wouldn’t see another day if it weren’t for me. Absurd.

All the houses, fleets of them, forging through the night. And, look, in the morning, all still there. Just because of me.

All the houses. A night watchman, that’s me. Lift off the roofs of houses, lift up their lids, and what would you see? What would the aggregate be? More misery and hatred than you could begin to imagine? Or more secret happiness, more goodness and mercy than you could ever have guessed?

But no one can do that, can they? So how do we know? Lift off the roofs of houses, peer inside….

Putting aside his own unruly feelings for Sarah, George follows her instructions and delivers her husband back to her doorstep while she prepares a celebratory dinner, a coq au vin that she and her husband first ate on a motoring trip through France. She replicates it with utmost care, down to the garnish of chopped parsley. Unfortunately, the knife is still in her hand when he enters…and a rent, a hideous tear is made in the pale pink sweater of patrimony.

What is so mysterious, what could never have been predicted in this little suburban melodrama is that Sarah would discover in herself dark depths of uncontrollable vengefulness and George of hopeless, foolish, irrational love. He visits her on one visiting day after the other in the bleak penitentiary, prepared to wait for the day of her release because

it doesn’t fade. It’s not true what they say, that it fades, it cools with the years. It grows, it blooms, the less time that’s left. Eight, nine years… How long do we have? Things get more precious, not less. That’s one thing I’ve learnt. And what we have here inside us we might never know, there’s no detecting it. That’s another thing I’ve learnt.

It might never happen, we might never know. A spring coiled inside us waiting for release.

Eight, nine years… But one day I’ll go for the last time, one day I won’t be just a visitor or come back alone.

Depending on how you are inclined to view Swift’s characters, you might find them ludicrous, or you might find them heroic. Swift has composed them as if he were knitting them: words are repeated, images and scenes are repeated over and over just as in a knitting pattern you use the same stitches again and again to create a design. Then, with a gradual, persistent, painstaking accumulation of stitches—details, effects—you build up a garment, this dense, thickly woven, almost stifling garment that you pull over your head and inhabit so that it becomes you, your envelope, your enclosure, a second skin.

Look at the stitches that go into knitting George. Of himself, he says, “Words weren’t my thing. Action, me.” It was considered surprising that he married a teacher, Rachel. When he loses his job, she leaves him, “as if twenty years were just another day and it had all been anyway like some long, non-stop test which I’d finally failed.” He is surprised and grateful, then, that his daughter Helen, who had been the archetypal rebellious teenager, an art student turned designer, now sympathizes with him, visits him, and appreciates the elaborate meals he pre-pares for her (chicken marsala, chocolate roulade). He is surprisingly devoted to good food and wine—not to any exorbitant degree that might tax one’s imagination, but in a pleasing, everyday manner, shopping in the fine foods section of the supermarket and chattily divulging the secret of making scrambled eggs. For his daughter’s sake, he even makes an effort to appreciate art:

It’s true, I didn’t know, or care much, about art. I didn’t see the point of looking at pictures. Or painting them. Though I’d have said to Helen—if it had ever come to it—that that’s just why we have policemen: so that law-abiding people are safe and free to go to art galleries and look at pictures. Or whatever. Stick pins in their nose. What else is civilization for?

But I didn’t say it, of course. Red rag to a bull. I even tried, for her sake, to get interested in art.

“You’re a detective, Dad. But you don’t see things. You don’t notice things.”

I even went to art galleries, and looked—and yawned. I even mugged up on her favourite painter, Caravaggio (they all looked like waxworks to me). And found out he was a bit of a tearaway himself, a bit of a thug on the side, always running up against the law. (Was there a message there for me?) A bit of a nancy too.

In the same tone, when Sarah reveals that she is translating a book on the Empress Eugénie, George is able to come up—both to her surprise and his own—with the fact that he knows of this obscure woman, the wife of Napoleon III, because when the couple was exiled from France they lived in Chislehurst, where he had lived as a child, in a house that had become a golf club to which his father, a photographer, belonged. Then it turns out that Sarah too had lived in Chislehurst; she might have been one of the children George’s father had photographed in his studio on the high street.

Swift’s intention in this novel appears to be to make the lines of their lives crisscross and connect and so form an intricate cat’s cradle of past and present, of different generations and different sections of society, to show how, in the end, everything connects. It turns out that he is following E.M. Forster’s dictum “only connect,” and this is what we hear in the echo of George’s repeated question “What else is civilization for?”

If there is a problem with Swift’s novel it is the question of how to read it. Since it is the story of a murder, it is apt to be placed in that genre. Since it is about a detective, it is apt, again, to be set within the frame of detective fiction. If so, it will be found wanting, but it is neither. Each of the characters is studied not in order to come up with a solution to a mystery, but with understanding instead. Understanding is not a matter for the law, or for the courts. Here we enter different territory, the territory of the novelist.

But now we are faced with another problem: instead of choosing, and creating, characters we deem worthy of such intense analytical study, Swift presents us with people from the only too familiar world that we might bump into on a golf course or in the supermarket or at the airport: flawed and fallible, common and, dare we say it, boring.

Can this be the work of the author of Waterland that probed the aquatic depths of the Anglian fens and the English past? The author of Last Orders that addressed such a grave theme as the mortality and burial of one’s own circle and generation?

It does give one pause. Can he now have descended to so little, so melodramatic a tale? Can more be made of what is really, to tell the truth, the kind of item you might come across in the evening newspaper or a television news program desperate for a story—a little glimpse into the taw-dry lives littered throughout a tawdry world? Can these possibly be seen as modern versions of the archetypes of Greek tragedy that we are bound to use as models?

Perhaps that is simply not the way to read The Light of Day. Instead, we need to start with the archetypes of Greek tragedy—and revenge tragedy in particular—and then descend the staircase to arrive at the pitiful little flatness of a London suburb and its average-sized inhabitants, and sorrily recognizable settings and situations—the kitchen, the golf course…. In this setting, then, the characters seem of the appropriate scale.

What Swift wants us to do, apparently, is acknowledge that in spite of the difference in scale, there is essentially no difference. What he presents in The Light of Day is the recognition of the heights and depths of human capacity, human nature; the scale to which these are applied makes no difference. How does he bring this about? By not talking of kings and queens but of cabbages—office secretaries, policemen, golfers—and assigning to them those same capacities and flaws. In the end, no matter what the situation, we reveal the same flesh, blood, and frailty, he tells us. Why look for the grand panorama of history, the fireworks of political events, when you find, stumble upon, the very same when you go out to buy your fish or flowers, prepare a meal for your daughter or your lover, and play a round of golf with a friend? What he suggests we do is accept the nugatory nature of our selves, and within the confinement of our acorn shells, discover—each one by ourselves and for ourselves—the great world enclosed within.

This Issue

June 12, 2003