Graham Swift | Critical Review by MacDonald Harris

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Graham Swift.
This section contains 983 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by MacDonald Harris

Critical Review by MacDonald Harris

SOURCE: "Love among the Ichthyosaurs," in The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 1992, p. 21.

In the following review, Harris offers praise for Ever After.

In 1983 Graham Swift's Waterland brought attention to an esteemed new voice in English fiction. The Guardian called it "the best novel of the year," and it was a finalist for the Booker Prize. Mr. Swift had published two novels and a story collection before Waterland, and has published two novels after it, the latest Ever After.

It remains clear that Waterland is the brightest ornament of this small oeuvre. It owes its power chiefly to its setting: the Norfolk fens, from Ely to King's Lynn, a boggy plain intersected with rivers, locks and canals. At the center lies a long-concealed murder, a country tale of guilt, thwarted love and the shadow of death. The novel evokes the setting with a masterly skill—the smell of the fens, their flatness, the solidity of the peat, the suppressed but mercurial temperament of the watermen and their families.

Now we have Ever After which takes its place in what is now a familiar family of novels that resemble one another like siblings who have, perhaps, an odd marital infidelity or two in their heritage. The plots change, the characters are different, but the same patterns recur, the same double time frames, the same use of the past circling around a crucial, half-hidden incident, like the terrorist bombing in Out of This World or the finding of a body in the river in Waterland. People die at an undue rate in Mr. Swift's novels—by suicide, by murder, by diseases convenient to his plot needs or by sheer chance. Waterland begins with a murder and ends with a suicide. Bill Unwin in Ever After has a biological father killed in the war and a legal father who dies by suicide. Everybody dies eventually, of course, but Mr. Swift's fiction turns on these deaths as a wheel turns on its bearing.

The turning wheel in Ever After is an antique clock that carries the narrator's thoughts from the present back to the 19th century, innumerable times. Bill Unwin is a middle-aged man of bookish temperament who finds himself serving temporarily as a professor, and in the course of his duties he unearths the notebooks of Matthew Pearce, who lived a life of obscurity in the English countryside in the time when the controversy over Darwinian thought was cleaving a great rift in society.

So "two old, rotting leather suitcases" transform Unwin's life, driving him away from his personal concerns into a preoccupation with Darwin, Sir Charles Lyell and the decline of religious belief, and then to a reapplication of this doubt-as-faith to the agonies of his contemporary life. In this he recapitulates, in condensed form, the drama of his avatar Matthew Pearce, whose discovery of an ichthyosaur fossil in the cliffs of Dorset serves as a focal point for his loss of Christian faith and his turning to Darwin in a desperate search for a substitute belief. Matthew quarrels with his rector father-in-law, abandons his wife and family, and sets off for America, but is drowned when his ship sinks off the Scilly Islands.

Unwin, our present-day narrator, attempts suicide, bungles it and ends with a flashback to a memorable hotel tryst in his youth. "We don't like our guests," the "toothy and angular" desk clerk tells him with a knowing pianokey smile, "to miss any trains."

In addition to an Oxbridge college, the setting rests heavily on the West Country—Dorset and Devon and especially Lyme Regis, a region where fossils are an important local industry. There are a number of curious parallels to John Fowles's novel The French Lieutenant's Woman; Matthew is a kind of lower-middle-class version of Mr. Fowles's hero; Lyell, Darwin and Lyme Regis are important elements in both novels; and Mary Anning, who kept a fossil shop in Lyme Regis and discovered her own ichthyosaur, plays cameo parts in both. As for sexual intrigues, these are brilliant and tragic in Mr. Fowles's book, discernible but murky in Mr. Swift's.

To this taste, Mr. Swift outstrips Mr. Fowles as a stylist. He is pyrotechnic, convoluted and highly literary; he has his roots planted firmly in English literature, and allusions to Hamlet and other classics are frequent. Sometimes he writes like a Henry James reborn after the sexual revolution. A boy is having tea with his dubiously respectable mother: "The blouse was cream silk (even in those warpinched days). A white strap, thin and shiny like a ribbon and lifting from her skin where it crossed her collarbone, was visible. The just discernible fringe of the garment to which it belonged had a filigree tenuosity, curiously evocative of the doily that bore our angel cake and macaroons."

The cakes and lingerie suggest Proust as well, and there is more. When the young narrator sees a production of La Boheme with sets of period Paris, he tells us, "It had never struck me before that Reality and Romance could so poignantly collude with each other; so that ever afterwards I saw Paris as a palpable network of 'scenes,' down to the subtle lighting of a smoky-blue winter's morning or the blush of a spring evening, the incarnation of something already imagined." With a few changed references, this might be the church at Combray, filtered to us through the English of Scott-Moncrieff.

Graham Swift is no minimalist, he is not politically correct in his sexual dynamics and he does not write self-help novels. If his families are dysfunctional, it is in the way that the families of Hamlet and Oedipus are. The prose is rich, lush and unhurried; [Ever After] is a modern British novel for the reader who is getting bored with the contemporary American mode of fiction and turns back, now and then, to Trollope, Hardy or George Eliot. High company; the company of those eminent corpses.

(read more)

This section contains 983 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by MacDonald Harris
Follow Us on Facebook