[from The Wilson Quarterly, New Year's 1986]
The Fens of east England serve novelist Graham Swift as Yoknapatawpha County served William Faulkner: less a geographical backdrop than as an active force shaping people's lives. The history of the Fens -- the mighty reclamation projects, the periodic floodings, the rise and fall of local family dynasties -- emerges in the elaborate rendering of what is, in effect, a murder mystery. The narrator, a history teacher soon to be sacked from his job at a London comprehensive school, begins his story with the appearance of a dead body at the lock tended by his father. A core of dark questions arise. The narrator then delves into his family's past, itself a tale riddled by mysteries: Why, for instance, did his mother, descendant of the powerful local brewing family, marry his father, a World War I veteran of humbler stock? Mysteries ramify by ultimately lead, as in all Gothic novels (including Faulkner's), to a secret at the center of the family house. But a final question lingers after the end of the narrative: Does knowledge of the past comfort or weaken those who seek it?
[added by Barry J, Fishman '89]