Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

"England and other stories" by Graham Swift (Scribner, 2015)

The shortest piece is about 5 pages long. The longest is about 15. There's often little action, and the storytime duration may only be minutes. Backstory and musing dominate, the main characters being thoughtful and analytical. Many of the stories involve men (usually 2) who've been friends for a long while. Widowers and people whose father died early populate the book. A few male+female couples also feature. There are stories about people who survived WW1 and/or WW2, which adds to the book's old-fashioned feel. He likes to associate a place or a minor, arbitrary object with a significant event - "He could hardly enter Waitrose again. It was almost impossible to go now - though he had to - to the spot, in the aisle, where it happened" (p.207), "He'd remember always that slice of bread" (p.241).

Much of the language is half-heartedly demotic. E.g.

  • Well, it may put me in a bad light, but I have to say Wanda was a disappointment. Don't get me wrong. I don't mean she wasn't perfectly - fine ... Wanda was nothing special (p.17)
  • "Haematology" is a letter dated 1647. There's the occasional archaism ("deign", "nay") but the effect is slight.
  • "The best days" is one of several 3rd-person pieces where the narrational language is sometimes similar to that which the main character uses and at other times clearly not - It was hard to to conclude that they'd conspired over it, even gone shopping together. If not, who had started the competition, who had copied whom?" (p.63). I liked the final page of that story.
  • In "Knife" the main character (he's 12) hears his mother noisily making love with Wes

    Outside, there were noises too, the noises of kids playing. Just kids playing, kids younger than him, cackling and screeching. Both the noises inside and the noises outside were like the sounds of animals. (p.181)
    which is good. After his mother collected him from the police station
    she'd beaten him - hard, with the full swing of her arm and the full whack of her hand. It was an attack. It hurt. But he'd known she was only hitting him because she was incapable of finding the right words, she might as well have been hitting herself. She was hitting him because in some way she was afraid. (p.181)
    which sounds too sophisticated for a gangster boy like him.

Too many pieces have too little impact - understated moments of realisation where the characters' voices are muffled by that of the narrator. We don't get inside the characters. In "Articles of war" Richard Longridge" is about to join the Temeraire. It's September 1805. On the last page there's

But he had not known action. He knew about noise and smoke and hissing steam that became as great as the smoke. He knew about powder in the mouth and nostrils. But he did not know about splinters. He trusted that, should the occasion arise and they were flying about, he would not lose his power of command. He would not lose his voice. He would not flinch or duck or wish to cover his face, not just because this would be unexemplary, but because he had been led to understand that whatever you did it made no difference (p.236)

which isn't enough for me. Some of the longer pieces (e.g. "Half a Loaf") seem amongst the lightest. "Saving Grace" is weak. "Remember This" and "I live alone" remind me of Julian Barnes' work on an off day. "I live alone" (where the main character receives a terminal diagnosis) has much that sounds convincing, but other parts seem tonally inappropriate - "Dry leaves scurried along the pavement like small alarmed animals" (p.222). I liked "Ajax" and its the slow reveal. Whereas in other stories the narrator's fluency and interest in words doesn't match the main character, in this piece the child appropriately ends up as an Oxbridge classics professor.

The final (title) story is much the best - it deserves to be in annual anthologies. A coastguard on his way to a 5.30am start passes a stopped car in the middle of nowhere. The driver is "other" in several ways - a Northerner of Caribbean decent on the way to a gig, a verbally disorganised comedian who'd had an encounter with a baby deer. The two share a few moments. I like the situation, the voice of the comedian, and the contrast between the 2 men, the coastguard's feelings about Exmoor and England. The balance of action and thought is more to my liking, and the symbolism works better - towards the end "The familiar tower of the lighthouse appeared before him, its topmost, no longer functioning section nonetheless touched with pink glinting light".

Other reviews

  • M John Harrison (This is a sharp, beautiful collection: every story quick and readable but leaving in the memory a core, a residue, of thoughtfulness. Some are wicked, some are funny; others, such as "Was She the Only One" or "Fusilli", encapsulate a huge but numbly personal crisis; some manage all three at once. Some feel old-fashioned ... There are a few duds, but Swift's practice – which is to make a world in a dozen pages, sometimes less; a world in a bottle – carries the reader quickly through and on to the next. His touch is so light and craftsmanlike, his scene shifts so subtle, his emotional logic so incontrovertible, that sometimes we hardly notice where they have taken us until too late.)
  • Lucy Scholes (Over 25 stories he reduces his characters' lives to these snapshots; a freeze-frame suspended image of a moment that distils the essence of the life in question, reduces it to something small and, to an unknowing observer, seemingly inconsequential.)
  • Valerie Martin (Some are very slight, barely sketches, bits of conversation or ­reflection caught in passing; they slip by as strangers do in a populous, busy world, or as ­doodles on the margins of a ­narrative. Others are more complex and deeply engaging. These stories exemplify the ­pastry-chef theory of realism in ­fiction, which holds that reality is a pie; you can slice it. In each slice is the essence of pie. Pie has no plot, but it has character, and that’s what you get. And that’s all you get. ... So in these stories we have a host of characters discovered at vulnerable moments in their lives. ... There’s something bright and rewarding about this tendency to consider both the connotation and the denotation of words as they appear in random thoughts. And it is this that I take, though it isn’t on my list, to be a prime signifier of Englishness.)
  • Michiko Kakutani (The lesser stories in this book are more synthetic affairs. ... Had such entries been left on the cutting room floor, “England” would have been a pensive, virtuosic collection. As it stands, it’s a lovely tapestry of stories with some unfortunate unraveled threads.)
  • Emily Donaldson (the twenty-five tales in this book, many of them mere wisps of things, are intended as a kind of collective human snapshot of the author’s native land ... Some of the most successful stories are scaffolded on the notion of the frozen moment.)

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