Graham Swift


"Tomorrow"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 14, 2007)

"You're asleep, my angels, I assume.  So, to my amazement and relief, is your father, like a man finding it in him to sleep on the eve of his execution.  He'll need all he can muster tomorrow.  I'm the only one awake in this house on this night before the day that will change all our lives."

Tomorrow by Graham Swift

British author Graham Swift has won virtually every writing prize possible—the Booker Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, two Italian prizes, and one French Prize—and that's for just six novels!  In this eagerly awaited seventh novel, Swift continues many of the themes that have dominated his previous writings, experimenting with new techniques, while telling a story which consists entirely of one woman's interior monologue.

It is 1995, and Paula Campbell Hook is lying awake in bed on the eve of a dramatic family announcement which she and her husband Mike plan to make to their sixteen-year-old twins.  They have delayed this life-changing occasion for several years, having decided to wait until after the twins, Nick and Kate, have celebrated their sixteenth birthday, fearful that they might be "wrenching [them] forever from [their] childhood."  Sleepless, Paula is planning what she will say to the twins, though Mike will be the person who actually makes the Big Announcement. 

In the course of the night, Paula reminisces about her past, her relationship with Mike (which began in the sixties when they were nineteen and twenty), her wedding, the marriages of their parents and their parents' histories, the deaths of family members, the childhoods of the twins, and the concept of love in all its aspects.  As Paula traces the lives of three generations through her flashbacks, she contrasts her family's present life with the lives of her parents and Mike's parents, showing how each person's expectations for the future grow out of his/her upbringing, early experiences, and the historical period in which s/he lives.  We are all products of our time, she believes, and she wishes to protect Nick and Kate from what she believes may be emotionally disastrous revelations to come.

Paula's meditations are conversational and very personal, sometimes revolving around the sexual freedom she and Mike experienced, separately and together, in the sixties.  Mike's parents had no such freedom, enduring World War II, which kept them apart for over a year while his father was a prisoner of war.  Her own (older) parents, living affluent, less connected lives, are multiply married—and still unfaithful to their spouses.  She believes that both of the twins are still virgins.  While all of her confessions may be more than she ever actually plans to discuss with the twins (and it is certainly more than the twins need to know), they do add to the developing themes for the reader, preparing him/her for the announcement which is the crux of the novel.  By making Paula's intimate "conversations" with the twins less plausible, the author is able to provide important information for the reader.

Swift deliberately ignores two of the canons of fiction writing in order to relate Paula's story.  First of all, he writes (surprisingly effectively) as a woman—sharing all a woman's intimacies, points of view, and attitudes.  Since the entire novel is an interior monologue, however, he ends up telling about the action, instead of recreating it in lively scenes.  He takes the chance that Paula is such a vibrant character that the reader will accept her version of the truth and share her emotions without the need to experience real action.

This almost works, since Paula is a character who reveals every thought, every emotion, and every aspect of her life to the reader, no matter how personal.  She has a vivid imagination, filled with intense memories of the past, and the reader accepts her recollections and sympathizes with her for much of the novel.   I'm not sure how many mothers of sixteen-year-olds would be anxious to share their most intimate sexual secrets with their teenage children, however--even veterans of the sixties have some sense of privacy and appropriateness—and this makes some of her monologue feel unnatural, and the "telling about" of the events somewhat tedious. 

The reader discovers the nature of the dramatic announcement with one hundred pages left in the novel, and while it may be difficult for the family to deal with, it is not a unique situation, nor is it something that will necessarily change life for the family as much as Paula thinks it will.  As a result, the remainder of the novel feels anticlimactic, and it ends as it begins, with Paula still the only one awake.

Graham Swift takes a lot of chances with structure in this novel, and he almost succeeds.  Paula is a character who inspires a good deal of sympathy, and she often makes direct connections with the reader.  Her honesty and her concern for her family are admirable, and her memories are so vivid that it is possible for the reader to feel as if s/he knows some of the other characters, even though s/he has never seen any of them in action.  The novel has many fine qualities, but its revelations ultimately seem contrived, instead of inevitable.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Tomorrow at RandomHouse

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"The Light of Day"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson APR 28, 2003)

The Light of Day by Graham Swift
Noted British author and Booker Prize winner Graham Swift has written what can be described as an upscale soap opera. Even the title is reminiscent of those 1950s, atmospheric afternoon TV dramas, presented starkly in black-and-white with a baritone voice-over reminding viewers that life is nothing if not a sad series of unavoidable misfortunes.

Read excerptImagine a novel that opens as its narrator drives to a cemetery and carefully deposits a dozen red roses on the grave of the husband of a woman with whom he is obsessively involved. This woman he met when hired by her in his capacity as a private detective to confirm the end of her husband's extramarital affair. The roses commemorate the second anniversary of the evening this woman took up a large kitchen knife and stabbed her betraying, now buried spouse.

After placing the flowers on the grave, the novel's narrator leaves the cemetery to drive to a prison for his fortnightly visit with the wife, the murderess, his client, and his love. He expressed his feelings only days after she was imprisoned, and he has reaffirmed this deep affection at ritualistic prison visits every other Thursday since the murder. The two are looking at a continued separated-by-bars relationship for at least the next decade.

Does this not have all the elements of a British version of As the World Turns, The Edge of Night, or Search for Tomorrow?

George Webb, the book's main character and the one to tell the story, is an ex-policeman. After years of basically uneventful, but satisfactory service, which had seen him rise to the rank of inspector, he was suddenly and summarily discharged for an unusual burst of temper that resulted in the violent assault of a suspect. To compound his misfortunate, he was then left by his wife of twenty-some years who claimed that she couldn't tolerate his disgrace.

Following his dismissal, Webb takes on a second career as a private detective. His specialty? It is what his grown daughter, Helen, refers to as "matrimonial work."

His clients are "mostly women," he tells his daughter, women who are looking to confirm what most already know or strongly suspect concerning betrayal by their husbands. Webb becomes, he says, "their ally, sometimes, their accomplice. And sometimes it's at the very moment they learn the worst that they most become your friend. They thank you for it -- they even pay you for it…. They've come to hire you to be their detective, to do this and do that, but before you know it what they most want you to do is give them a hug."

"In my time of doing matrimonial work," Webb, the self-trained psychologist, observes, "I've seen quite a few couples who've come to grief, who've gone to war, for no other reasons, as far as I can see, than that over the years of being safe and steady and settled, something's got lost, something's gone missing, they've got bored."

Webb, throughout a book which itself is never boring, is full sad-but-true observations. "Most of life," he says early in his narrative, "maybe, is only time served." Webb is a skeptic. "Coincidences happen," he says. "I only half believe in them. I'm a detective. We see what we are ready to see."

Webb's observations concerning life and love constantly demonstrate his insight and sensitivity, but they also confirm his obvious belief that life's lessons are learned only one way, and that's the hard way.

Speaking of love in general, but reflecting on his own strange case, he asks: "How does it happen? How do we choose? Someone enters our life and we can't live without them. But we lived without them before…. As if we were only half ourselves and never knew it. And maybe it's best not to know."

Webb philosophizes on the role of detective: "We're hunters, that's what we are, always stalking, tracking the missing thing, the missing part of our lives."

Webb regularly shares his hard wrought insights with the reader as if with a friend. Webb is interesting and sympathetic. He is engaging in the strongest sense of the word. Swift is successful in making Webb -- his thoughts, his beliefs, and his feelings -- real. This is, perhaps, the highest praise one can give a novelist.

So, don't be surprised if Swift wins another Booker Prize for The Light of Day, or if the book is at least short-listed. Yes, the novel is a soap opera, but it is much more. It is a genuinely sad story, as, Webb would comment, is life.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Light of Day at MostlyFiction.com

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"Last Orders"

(Reviewed by Wenkai Tay NOV 30, 2003)

Last Orders by Graham Swift

Little would you expect four men in a pub to ponder an issue as weighty as their impending mortality. But death does strange things to us. When confronted with the prospect of death, we become more conscious of what it means to be alive.

And so when Jack Dodds, master butcher, passes away, the people he leaves behind in the small British town of Bermondsey struggle to make sense of their loss. Jack has left instructions for his ashes to be scattered into the sea. His widow Amy is unwilling to perform the task. Consequently, his drinking mates, Ray, Lenny, Vic, and his son Vince, are left to do it. Seeing their old friend Jack become nothing more than ashes in a jar, the four men realize how ill-prepared they are to deal with death itself.

This novel, Last Orders won the Booker Prize in 1996.

In a style reminiscent of traditional British novels, author Graham Swift draws out fragments of the past from the memories of these four men. With prose that is even, measured, and at times too clever, Swift recounts the stories of missed opportunities and tales laden with regret. The four men each recall their past loves: lost loves, secret loves. They tell of their large ambitions, out of place in a little town like Bermondsey. They share how being drafted to fight in war changed their outlook on life and broadened their horizons.

In Last Orders, life itself is portrayed as a powerful, deterministic force, one that is able to inalterably shape the course of our future. All the characters struggle to escape their individual destinies, but only some of them succeed. Looking back, they wonder if they chose the right path in life. But as readers, we realize that some of them never really had a choice. This only heightens the ironic inevitability of their situation.

Yet all of them cannot escape death, that great equaliser. Vic, an undertaker by profession, says "the dead are the dead, I've watched them, they're equal. Either you think of them all or you forget them. . And it doesn't do when you remember the others not to spare a thought for the ones you never knew. It's what makes all men equal for ever and always. There's only one sea."

Graham Swift's writing style makes you sit up and take notice. Meditative and ponderous, conspicuous and self-conscious, it is wryly comic in a dry, British way. Swift coaxes emotion out of four reserved men, telling their stories in their own words, preserving their own unique speech pattern of Bermondsey. Each of the men have their own private moments, when they reflect on the sudden loss of their friend and the brevity of life.

At one point, Ray excuses himself to go to the bathroom. "But it's not just to take a leak," he finds out. "I find the Gents and I unzip, then I feel my eyes go hot and gluey, so I'm leaking at both ends. It's cold and damp and tangy in the Gents." Later, he says, "Well, that's that over with. Crying's like pissing. You don't want to get caught short, specially on a car journey."

Swift uses travel as a parable for life. In Last Orders, all the characters are in a state of flux. Four men travel to scatter Jack's ashes into the sea, representing the journey we make through life. In the novel, as in life, some characters arrive at the endpoint, some are in the process of travelling, while others are fated never to reach their final destination. But it is on this journey that they - and we - ultimately find redemption.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 53 reviews


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About the Author:

Graham SwiftGraham Swift was born in Catford, South London in 1949. His father was a civil servant, working at the National Debt Office and served a as a naval pilot in WW II; his mother lived through the bombing of London.

His ambition to become a writer began in his early teens. He attended attended Dulwich College went on to read English at Cambridge and then began an academic career at York university, working on a PhD thesis on The City in Nineteenth Century English Literature. He later abandoned this as he pursued his writing, teaching English literature at various colleges until he became a full-time writer in 1983.

His novel Waterland was shortlisted Booker in 1983, and wonthe Winifred Holtby Prize. Ever After won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in France, in 1992. Last Orders won the 1996 Booker Prize, and was filmed by Fred Schepisi with Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. It also won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and shortlisted for the Dublin IMPAC Award in 1998. The Light of Day was on the longlist for the 2003 Man Booker Award.

An avid fisherman, Graham Swift has also co-edited an anthology of fishing in literature. He lives in Wandsworth, south London.

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