"The White Silence of Their Lives"

by Linda Grey Sexton

[from The New York Times Book Review, 11 September 1988]

To write with passion -- but without pathos -- about people who mourn is a formidable task. To write simultaneously about individual who, transcending the burden of the past, reconnect with others and resurrect their own lost selves represents another magnitude of difficulty entirely. Such an undertaking requires talent and courage, and the British novelist Graham Swift demonstrates an ample supply of both in his fifth novel, Out of This World, and evocative portrait of a family once fragmented and now in the process of healing.

This novel is different from his last, Waterland, which was nominated for England's Booker Prize; its textured descriptions of the English fens invited comparisons with Thomas Hardy. Mr. Swift's lyricism in both books elevates him to the level of writers like John Cheever, William Styron, John Updike and Anne Tyler, but Out of This World reaches beyond the mere felicity of language by scrutinizing, in an intensely personal fashion, the perfectly drawn and imperfectly human characters of Harry Beech, and Englishman, and his daughter, Sophie.

Boldly choosing a structural device that might have been disastrous in less capable hands, Mr. Swift tells the story of the Beeches by means of two alternating points of view (first Harry, at 60-odd years, and then Sophie, now in her 30's). Though confined to separate chapters, these two distinctive voices quickly merge, like the colors and shapes in a kaleidoscope, to create a single, engrossing narrative.

This story is of twin interior journeys, the daughter's mirroring the father's. Sophie, now living in Brooklyn and not having spoken with her father in many years, peels back the layers of time while lying on her analyst's couch; wry, vulnerable, sensitive, she is characterized without cliché. Harry, formerly a war-zone photojournalist who spent little time with his young daughter after his wife's sudden death, put his camera -- and innumerable gruesome events -- between himself and life; now, flying above England as an aerial photographer, he seeks out ruins of the past and at last finds himself ready to confront his own.

Mr. Swift presents the reader with many provocative questions and ideas, but most intriguing is his depiction of an era in which families lose their members not to the age-old engines of warfare but rather to the modern engine of alienation. Set against a backdrop of armed conflict, from World War I to the Falklands, Out of This World is nevertheless about the aftermath of personal struggles and epiphanies: the ravages of love gone awry, the white silence of estrangement, the risk involved in daring to care for someone in a precarious world.

The author does not hesitate to juxtapose hard ironies -- to set a heroic pilot, who has just dropped a bomb killing many hundreds in Germany, against the Nuremberg war criminals, who sent millions to their deaths; the contrast is further extended to include Harry's father, a munitions manufacturer whose bombs annihilated thousands of Germans but saved many Allied troops, and finally Harry himself, who makes his name photographing destruction and, years later, must ask himself if this too is not "an act of inhumanity."

"Life is a tug of war between memory and forgetting," says Sophie's analyst. "The answer to the problem is to learn how to tell. It's telling that reconciles memory and forgetting." By the book's culmination, both father and daughter have begun to master this art. Mr. Swift's achievement is that the important story of their self-education has been told with such simple, startling beauty. not a book the reader is likely to forget, Out of This World deserves to be ranked at the forefront of contemporary literature.

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