Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.
Graham Swift's vast, rambling exploration of history - personal, political and geographical -- was published in 1983 to universal acclaim, shortlisted for the Booker, among other things. I am deeply embarrassed it's taken me this long to read it, although perhaps it will give you some idea of just how enormous my 'to read' pile is.
I generally read a book in a week or less, but this one took me double that. This is not a reflection on how taken I was by it, but rather a reflection of it's depth, formidable intelligence, and complexity. I found myself wanting to reread passages, to backtrack, loop and settle in for good long stretches, not unlike the waterways of the British Fens, which is the book's setting.
It is, on the surface, the story of Henry Crick, about-to-be-ousted history teacher, whose wife has done a Dreadful Thing, and whose brother and father-in-law did Dreadful Things of their own... but like the rivers that flow through the narrative, much lies beneath the surface. It's a messy book, one might say, with meandering (those rivers again) digressions into things like the French revolution and how and where eels spawn, ale-making, mad women (or not, perhaps) kept in attics, silt and dredging, floods and, yes, sex. Henry narrates the book, partly in the form of lectures given to his whinging, unappreciative students. His voice is elegiac, ironic at times, despairing at others, full of wonder now and then. He talks of commerce, the industrial revolution, the secrets of families, and the inescapable power of water, which becomes a metaphor for memory -- what stays, and what is lost.
A friend, and writer I admire, Dan Vyleta, told me over dinner once how much he likes messy, imperfect novels in which the author's efforts are visible. I took this to mean, not the sort of literary acrobatics and pyrotechnics some emerging writers indulge in, drawing more attention to their own cleverness than to the story itself, but rather the author's longing to say the true thing, to find the heart of the work. I can't think of a better example of just that sort of wonderful, imperfect messiness than WATERLAND.
The language is beautiful, the images indelible. The Observer said: "WATERLAND appropriates the Fens as MOBY-DICK did whaling or WUTHERING HEIGHTS the moors -- a beautiful, serious and intelligent novel, admirably ambitious and original." Utterly agree. My next trip to England and to the Fens I go.