Graham Swift | Critical Review by Kirsty Milne

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Graham Swift.
This section contains 602 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Kirsty Milne

SOURCE: "Static Pools," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 121, No. 4072, February 21, 1992, p. 40.

In the following mixed review, Milne considers the structure and narrative voice of Ever After.

The past may be a foreign country, but Graham Swift's miserable male narrators feel far more at home there than in an uncomfortable present. Swift acquired a devoted following among East Anglia lovers with his 1983 novel, Waterland, in which a distraught schoolteacher seeks consolation by empathising intensively with his Fenland forebears. Musing on land reclamation and local brewing dynasties makes a pleasant change from contemplating forced early retirement and a born-again, baby-snatching wife.

Bill Unwin, the ineffectual ex-don at the centre of Ever After, is equally in need of historical distractions. He is holed up in a Cambridge college under false pretences, reeling from the deaths of his glamorous wife, an actress, and his glamorous mother, a professional femme fatale. Fortunately, Unwin has a good excuse for escaping into the past. From his mother he inherits a historical legacy of some academic interest: the journals of his Cornish great-great-grandfather, Matthew Pearce, who saw an ichthyosaurus embedded in a cliff, and from that day found his religious faith beginning to waver.

With his elegant gift for story-telling, Swift produces an ingenious tale within a tale. Matthew is a confident and clever surveyor, at ease with the new technology of the 1850s. He benefits from the Devon copper-mining rush and the railway boom. He marries a rector's daughter and raises a family. But the death of a small son catalyses Matthew's doubts. He reads Darwin. He challenges the orderliness of God's creation, and makes his scepticism disastrously public.

Though the suicidal Unwin elaborates and speculates on Matthew's predicament, the bulk of his great-great-grandfather's story is already there in the notebooks. There are no fresh disclosures, and no historical detective work is required of him—unlike the scholarly sleuthing that powers A S Byatt's Possession. Past and present coexist without interaction, like two static pools.

This was not the case in Waterland, where the school-teacher's childhood in Fenland and the lives of his brewing and lock-keeping ancestors merged into one silt-laden, eel-infested narrative flow. But here, the generations are not so satisfactorily connected. Bill Unwin's obsession with his father, who shot himself in Paris after the war—and with his stepfather, who may or may not have precipitated the suicide—finds no answering echo in the life of Matthew Pearce.

There is a parallel emotional mood in the disrupted happiness of two marriages. Unwin's wife Ruth kills herself to avoid a lingering death from cancer, while Matthew's wife Elizabeth is outraged that he should allow his doubts to blast apart their life together. Both women remain shadowy, idealised figures in the consciousness of their anguished spouses.

Bill Unwin's narrative voice is meditative, cerebral, rhetorical. It demands attention from the reader; it will not be everyone's taste. Even so, the novel has outstanding local virtues. The American stepfather generates some rueful comedy, and there are tender recollections of Ruth at the start of her career. Swift's sense of place, though less overwhelming than in Waterland, is still powerful: in just a few pages he recreates postwar Paris as a magic playground for a knowing child.

Yet Ever After has something disjointed about it. Swift's drive to yoke past and present seems misplaced in this case: the 20th-century widower and the 19th-century truth-seeker do not complement each other quite as they should. It is as if there are two fledgling novels struggling to get out. For his next novel, Swift might like to reconsider the merits of staying in a single century.

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This section contains 602 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Kirsty Milne
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