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Graham Swift

From:   Demented_Hyaena  (Original Message)     Sent: 1/6/2008 2:34 PM
I've just finished The Light of Day by Graham Swift and know that other people like him so might as well start his own thread.
I have to say it's about the easiest book I've ever read despite being unusual. Having finished it I think I get it and have decided I think it's pretty good. It is supposedly told over the period of a single day but in reality it is only a few experiences dispersed sparingly though the book (mostly the middle) and the recollections of the narrator over mostly a 3 year period but at times covers much further back than that.

There are arguably only four main characters a couple of minor ones and a few chameos. The style of the book is a light and detatched style because of what the narrator has gone through and what his job is and this comes across as the numbness of some memories. Really all the book talks about through him are relationships, cooking, his line of work and memories of what goes on. I find that quite remarkable really, the simplicity of the character and the book that is carried off for 300+ pages. Even though you never really find out what any of the other characters think or feel about things, his speculations based on superficial observations paint all the other main characters. Some of the relationships the narrator has like with his daughter come across as a kind of sweetness of years past and troubles overcome and sticking by people and I think that is one of the things the book is about.
The cover describes it as a love story which is it slightly in an unconventional way but I think it has other things in, one’s relationships to spouses, former partners, one’s parents and so on.

I think really the only thing lacking in the book was more background about the refugee in it but I suppose in a way it wasn't needed as she was just a mechanism. That aspect of it came off lighter than I would have liked. The other thing was perhaps with his thoughts, he might have felt a bit more guilty and this would have given the book even more power.
In conclusion if this is what a story like this is like, I'd really like to get hold of something with more subject material I'd like.

From:   Evie_forever                                         Sent: 1/7/2008 12:40 AM
Thanks for this, DH - I sometimes think Swift gets a bit overlooked in favour of McEwan, Barnes, Ishiguro, etc, but I think he's a fine writer.
I have read Light of Day, and very much enjoyed it. He does have a straightforward style, though I'm not sure it's the easiest book I've ever read - but I don't remember very much detail beyond the relationship between the two main characters - but I do remember the skill with which Swift takes us backwards and forwards, and reveals the different layers of his story. He is an author who seems to understand the importance in, and of, ordinary lives.
I have read a number of his books, and enjoyed them all - Waterland, as I've said elsewhere, remains firmly the best, in my opinion, with Last Orders perhaps second favourite. But I love his character-driven novels, and am looking forward to reading his latest when it comes out in paperback.

From:   fiveowls                                                  Sent: 1/7/2008 9:24 AM
Thanks, DH. I'm with Evie here in rating Graham Swift highly even though I have only read two of his novels: Waterland and Ever After. They both have a strong sense of place and history - Waterland set in the Fens and Ever After at a number of sites including Cambridge and some engagement with Darwinism. Waterland is a fine book and I've placed it in my top 12. It includes a most riveting chapter 'About the Eel' and I suspect would provide you with much valuable 'subject matter' - and not just eels!

From:   Demented_Hyaena                                Sent: 6/13/2008 9:48 AM
Waterland is an interesting book about the fens. It is really about the fens and history in the more general sense of stories and how stories at a personal, family and local level all play out. What is the distinction? I think the backdrops are the people as the narrator tells it. Told by an older man looking back on his time as a teenager. It's not a warm style, although rambling (deliberately) it's a somewhat candid tale and is quite clear that various things in this illustrated history lead to later consequences.

It has an interesting style. As all modern novels it must have the obligatory multiple viewpoints or jumping around in time. In this case it is confusing jumps around in time in the authors mind and stories.
The background story is set in the fens in the second world war when the narrator is a naive youngster absorbed in his history books and isolated fenland upbringing. He has his father, his older brother, a coterie of youngsters that are important in the story wandering around absorbed with themselves as a group. A bombshell is dropped very early on and then perhaps part crime part detective parts of the story are pieced together in a much bigger narrative about the fens, about the family history, the town history, the narrator’s school days. The style of the book has been commented on this book with regards the extraneous stories that are added in. Apparently the chapter about eels is very famous but I have to say that the chapter about Coronation Ale was particularly enjoyable and the chapter about the narrator's family a good laugh.

Chapters go seamlessly from one into another in most places but to better explain this wacky style I've taken two paragraphs out of the diversionary history chapters on the eel:-
The Egyptians knew it, the Greeks knew it, the Romans knew it and prized its flesh; but none of these ingenious peopels could discover where the eel kept its reproductive organs, if indeed it had any, and no one could find (and no one ever will) in all the waters where the European Eel dwells, from the North Cape to the Nile, an eel bearing ripe milt.
Curiosity could not neglect this enigma. Aristostle maintained that the eel was indeed a sexless creature and that its offspring were brought forth by spontaneous generation out of mud. Pliny affirmed that when constrained by the urge to procreate, the eel rubbed itself against rocks and the young were formed by the shreds of skin thus detached. And amongst other explanations of the birth of this apparently ill equipped species were that it sprang from putrefying matter; that it emerged from the gills of other fishes; that it was hatched from horses' hairs dropped in water; that it issued from the cool, sweet dews of May mornings; not to mention that peculiar tradition of our own Fenland, that eels are none other than the multiplied mutations of one-time sinful monks and priests, whom St Dunstan, in a holy and miraculous rage, consigned to eternal, slithery penance, thus giving to the cathedral city of the Fens its name: Ely - the eely place.

The only criticism of the book I have is that I never really got much understanding of the older narrator, through the stories you get more attached to those that don't even feature like his mother who you are just told about in these fables (quite vividly at times). Perhaps the older narrator was just a device to tell the story and introduce the backdrop of history. The reasons young Tom becomes a history teacher are not explored as fully as they could perhaps be or maybe it is just taken that that's his personality.

The lasting impression of this book is that I'm quite surprised one of my friends actually read this book and liked it given the dark and other themes in it. It certainly has an aftertaste beyond the story of Tom Crick as a teenager in the ever present history and location.
Perhaps some of this is the themes of tragedy in it and what our place in history is.
Fairly strongly recommended.

From:   Evie_again                                            Sent: 6/13/2008 2:00 PM
Thanks for this, DH. I personally disagree that it's about the fens - for me, the fens were the backdrop and it was about the people, especially the central one, but the lives of the people, while intertwined with the history and, equally, the atmosphere of the fens, were what seemed to me to be the reason for the novel. I love that bit you quoted - when I was in Ely some time ago, I kept thinking about that.

I found that intertwining, though, of the landscape and the people just beautifully done. It remains his best novel by far, in my opinion - I like his writing a lot, and have enjoyed all his novels so far, but this one stands head and shoulders above the rest - and I think it is because that extraordinary relationship between the characters and that fascinating and slightly weird part of the English landscape is so brilliantly done. The idea of the land being clawed back, and at any moment likely to be re-claimed by the sea, seemed such a wonderful metaphor for the fragility of life - not so much of physical life as the inner life of the characters. Wonderful writing, and a novel I really must read again.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I enjoyed reading your review.

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