When my mother was a little girl, back at the beginning of the last century, she used to hear her mother and an aunt gossiping about an uncle who was having an affair with a woman “over the water.” She thought they must mean somewhere glamorous, like Paris; all they really meant was London south of the Thames. This is the far-from-glamorous country Graham Swift has made his own. It stretches from working-class Bermondsey to affluent Putney, via Wimbledon, Blackheath, Clapham, Sydenham, Lewisham, Orpington—quiet commuting suburbs, a comfortable distance from the center, where the action is. Even Waterland, the Fenland saga that made Swift famous, ends up in boring Lewisham.
There is nothing boring, however, about the inner lives of Swift’s people. They may be nobodies to whom nothing much happens, who hold down dull jobs and stay put, but that is not what he makes of them. Their seemingly uneventful lives seethe with troubles that never quite disturb the placid surface—troubles at home, troubles at work, troubles with neighbors. They are people thwarted by circumstances, in thrall to their own idiosyncrasies and obsessions and routines. That is how most lives are, of course, and it takes a great deal of skill and invention to turn nobodies into heroes.
This is what Swift did in his first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner (1980), and he has gone on doing so ever since, in different ways and with increasing sophistication. The book’s narrator (hero is too strong a word for such a mild man) appears to be nothing more than a sad puppet controlled by his well-to-do wife. She is a great beauty, but frigid and a martyr to asthma, who marries him because he is docile and obedient, not for love. She duly sets him up in a little shop, tells him what to wear, what to eat, what to do, grudgingly bears him a child, then settles down to a life of chronic illness. And because he really loves her and can’t believe his luck when she marries him, he becomes the nonentity she needs. Yet by nature he is her opposite—affectionate and generous, a soft touch to anyone in need. But never in front of his wife. Because of her, he disowns the qualities that make him admirable—a big heart and unending patience—and hides them away like a guilty secret even from his adored only daughter, who rejects him.
The misery of quiet lives is a very English theme, but Swift handles it in a way that is neither quiet nor conventional. The Sweet-Shop Owner is a cunning book, discreetly experimental, with a narrative that constantly shifts from present to past and from character to character, so that the story covers whole decades in the course of a single day, always in a prose that is unfalteringly clear and unostentatious. All in all, it was a remarkable debut.
Shuttlecock, which appeared the following year, in 1981, also takes place “over the water,” but the mood and the people are…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.