"The Sweet Shop Owner"

by Frank Rudman

[from Spectator 26 April 1980]

Willy Chapman is the sweet shop owner of Graham Swift's impressive first novel. Ostensibly conformist and unassuming, but equally determined to get his own quiet way and prepared to wait a lifetime of snubbing and self-effacement to attain his ends, Willy marries an insistently assertive shrew, a frigid near-hysteric who retreats into illness and invalidism. Irene, who comes from a family with money, sets up Willy in the High Street sweet shop largely in order to keep him safely and happily engages away from home and any importunate demands he might make upon her as a husband. Out os a misplaced and regretted sense of duty, Irene relents just once and gives Willy a daughter, Dorothy (Dorothea: God's gift) who grows up unable to forgive either of them.

Willy's moment of triumph comes when he suddenly pays off everybody, shuts the shop, all duty done, hoping that the ungrateful Dorothy will return to look after him (After all, she never said she wouldn't ) as he struggles home with angina tearing away inside his chest. The Chapman family's bitter history is brilliantly chronicled by Graham Swift who captures the essence of the small, modest but obliging variety of family establishments that made up High Street business before the remorseless blight of supermarkets and building society boxes squashed them out of existence.

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