British novelist Graham Swift's Waterland (London, 1983; New York, 1984) is a complex tale set in eastern England's low-lying fens region. It is narrated by Tom Crick, a middle-aged history teacher. Tom is facing a personal crisis, since he is about to be laid off from his job and his wife has been admitted to a mental hospital. He is a man whois keenly interested in ideas about the nature and purpose of history. Faced with a class of bored and rebellious students, he scraps the traditional history curriculum and tells them stories of the fens instead. These stories form the substance of the novel, which takes place mainly in two time frames: the present, and the year 1943, when Tom Crick is fifteen years old. The traumatic events ofhis adolescence reach forward in time to influence the present. The structure of the novel, which frequently moves back and forth in time, also suggests the fluidity of the interaction between past and present.
Tom's tale of the fens is sometimes lurid. It includes a family history going back to the eighteenth century and such lurid topics as murder, suicide, abortion, incest, and madness. Theseevents are set against a background of some of the great events in history, such as World War I and World War II. The novel also includes digressions on such off-beat topics as the sex life of the eel, the history of land reclamation, the history of the River Ouse, and the nature of phlegm. At once a philosophical meditation on the meaning of history and a gothic family saga, Waterland is atightly interwoven novel that entertains as it provokes.
Graham (Colin) Swift was born May 4, 1949, in London, England, the son of Allan Stanley and Sheila Irene (Bourne) Swift. His father was a civil servant. Swift attended Dulwich College, in South London, from 1960 to 1967. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1970 from Queens' College, Cambridge, and a masterof arts degree in 1975 from the same school. From 1974 to 1983 he worked part-time as a teacher of English.
Swift's first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner, was published in 1980 and records the memories of a dying shopkeeper. It was followed by Shuttlecock (1981), which is also an analytical story about the past. A collection of Swift's short stories, Learning to Swim and Other Stories was publishedin 1982.
In 1983 Swift had a literary breakthrough with his novel Waterland. A commercial and critical success, it was nominated for the Booker Mc-Connell Prize and was awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize (1983), the Winifred Holtby Prize from the Royal Society of Literature (1984), and Italy's Premio Grinzane Cavour (1987). Waterland was adapted for film by Peter Prince and released by PalacePictures in 1992. The novel was also a success in the United States, and since its publication, Swift's earlier books have also been published in America.
Swift's third novel, Out of This World (1988), was followed a few years later by Ever After (1992). Like Waterland, each of these novels examines the interplay between the past and the present. Ever After was awarded France's Prix du MeilleurLivre Etranger in 1994. Swift's novel Last Orders (1996) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for best novel and the Booker Prize, both in 1996. Last Orders was adapted for film by Sony Pictures Classics in 2001, directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins. In 2003 Swift's novel The Light of Day is due to be published.
Waterland begins with thenarrator Tom Crick describing his childhood growing up in the low-lying fens area of eastern England. His father is a lock-keeper, and they live in a cottage by the River Leem. One day in July 1943, the drowned body of a local boy, Freddie Parr, floats down the river.
The story flashes forward to the present. Tom, having spent thirty-two years as a history teacher, is leaving his job because the...