"The complaints of a violent family."

by J.L. Carr

[from The Spectator, 12 March 1988]

This is Graham Swift's fourth published book. The third, Waterland, is in the Big League -- innovatory, moving, memorable. He took a terrifying risk in its construction and pulled it off. People and landscape, past and present are one. Long after its final page I went on regretting what had happened, apprehensive of what still might come in a life beyond the book. Its story is told in more than one tone of voice -- reflective, questioning, didactic, bantering.

He has chosen to tell the story of Out of This World in another way. Well, it is a different sort of story: it is about violent international eruption, the violence of personal relationship and lost love. And it advances uneasily in alternating, self-justifying monologues -- 16 by a father (Harry), 15 from his daughter (Sophie).

Harry (Winchester, Oxford, ex-wartime intelligence officer who -- God help him -- took a RAF camera course) immediately drives you into a corner and obsessively goes on at you. Sophie just grumbles away at her New York psychiatrist.

Harry doesn't converse; he talks in snapshots. One is peppered with utterances. Take page 14:

'And the pictures. The earth from the moon, the ultimate photo.'
'And, if you don't duck fast enough, he gives you all three barrels,
'All of it, the whole of it, everything.'
But for the most part, he is single-shot man,
'Hanging in the black velvet of space. I wish I could take that photo. Stopped there.'

Towards the book's end he calms down and, quite often, talks in conversational sentences.

There is no respite when Sophie takes over; she rattles away crossly in ejaculatory phrases. Although British, she cleverly has picked up enough Americanese to communicate meaningfully with native-born plumbers: "C'mon! C'mon, f--- me, f--- me good, you great hog!"

There is no literary law demanding fair shares for subject, predicate, subsidiary clause. But they do make it easier listening and perhaps Mrs. Thatcher (in her Fourth Term) should give it her attention.

The Beech family trades in violence. The daughter utters it. Father has felt it important to bustle around the world recording it. Grandfather has lost an arm but gained a VC from it. The family fortune comes from the manufacture of bombs until proprietor, chauffeur and Daimler and mansion's fašade are blown up by one. When this happens, Harry's camera is poised and Sophie sees him. I fancy it is this glimpse and not the explosion which blows daughter and father apart.

Yet, although I read the novel with ringing ears, I was not unsettled by its protagonists' disasters. But I was sorry for the chauffeur, and for Harry's first wife and for Sophie's husband, Joe. There are also the psychiatrist and the dog. Now and then, as the pair tried to unload their little burdens of guilt upon me, I resentfully felt sorry for myself.

What have they to complain about? Well, Harry feels badly about two or three sins of omission. For instance, he refused to take over his father's prosperous business. Sophie feels badly about her contented husband, and then Harry hasn't written to her for ten years. But Harry is doing all right. He has found a child-bride, a nice little Wiltshire cottage and an undemanding job taking archaeological aerial photographs on fine days. Sophie has two healthy children and a doctor who (at 80 dollars an hour) will listen to her encouched and (free) in bed.

So, with the best will in the world, I didn't care what happened to either of them. One listens -- but only out of politeness. Sophie is boringly coarse; Harry, despite tossing off asides to remind one of his exploits with a camera at Nuremberg, Sinai, Vietnam, is a dull, ineffective fellow . . . the firm's shareholders were lucky when he turned down the managing-directorship.

Towards the end of the book, two others have their brief say and the final interlude in Joe's. He didn't tell me much that I hadn't already guessed, but, for a couple of too brief pages, he talks about his childhood within cheering distance of Tottenham Hotspurs' football ground, about overgrown bomb-sites, the black-and-white television brought to view the Coronation, a Margate boarding-house called the Thanet Hotel. And he remembers rusting seaside piers, a strong smell of tar and Kentish toast-houses [sic].

I found him very rewarding. He talked about people and places he had known. And he took me back to where I have spent some of my happiest hours -- the old Swift Country.


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