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Swift, Graham

waterland fiction history south

(British, 1949– )

Swift was born in south London. He studied at Cambridge and York universities, and taught English until 1983, the year that saw publication of his most celebrated novel, Waterland. Like all his fiction, Waterland is concerned with the impact of the past on the present. Tom Crick, the narrator, is a history teacher, about to be pensioned off; the novel consists of his addresses to his pupils, including a sceptic who believes that history is little better than make-believe in the light of the threat that everything will end in nuclear destruction. Crick's various stories are a desperate attempt to reclaim the value of humanism: he tells of his family, on one side Fenland lock-keepers and on the other brewers, whose ale for the coronation of George V caused anarchy; of the mystery surrounding the death by drowning of a near childhood contemporary during the Second World War; and of the lasting effects of that death during the present day. Swift's prose, with its restrained lyricism, hauntingly evokes the Fenland landscape, and conveys the disturbing undercurrents of human behaviour. Waterland was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and won the Guardian Fiction award. Swift won the Booker with Last Orders (1996), in which four south Londoners drive to the Kent coast to scatter a friend's ashes. Perhaps because of his intimate knowledge of the area from which his characters come, the author pulls off the rare feat of re-creating the thoughts and language of superficially ordinary people without any hint of force or pretension. Of Swift's earlier novels, Shuttlecock (1981) is highly recommended; in which the alienated, near-paranoid narrator uncovers his father's wartime past. Whilst being a serious exploration of forms of guilt, this is also very funny.

Rose Tremain, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan  NC

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