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Graham Swift

Graham Swift lives in London and is the author of eight novels, which have collectively been awarded the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Booker Prize, the Italian Premio Grinzane Cavour, and the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages.

Blurbs

"Perfectly controlled, superbly written -- Waterland is original, compelling and narration of the highest order."

– The Guardian (U.K.)

"I can't remember when I read a book of such strange, insidious, unsettling power with a more startling cast of characters."

– Books and Bookmen

"Teems with energy, fertility, violence, madness -- demonstrates the irrepressible, wide-ranging talent of this young British writer."

– Washington Post Book World

"A formidably intelligent book -- animated by an impressive, angry pity at what human creatures are capable of doing to one another in the name of love and need. . . . The most powerful novel I have read for some time."

– The New York Review of Books

"Waterland appropriates the Fens as Moby Dick did whaling or Wuthering Heights the moors -- a beautiful, serious, and intelligent novel, admirably ambitious and original."

– The Observer

"Rich, ingenious, inspired."

– The New York Times

"Swift tells his tale with wonderful contemporary verve and verbal felicity. . . . A fine and original work."

– Los Angeles Times

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Waterland

Water and History Everywhere!

03/16/12

There have been exactly two books I’ve read in my life that have made me decide to stop writing for good, knowing full well I could never achieve the mastery of their respective novelists. Before you go and ostracize me for indolence or lack of perseverance, know that the feeling of discomfiture is always temporary. In fact, on both occasions after a few hours wallowing in my self-pity and doubt, I was determined to get back on the warhorse and ride that Equus ferus into the combat that is writing.

The first novel that elicited defeat within me was Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. I was eighteen when I first came across the little book, so you could possibly blame youth on my resolve to give up. But the second time I felt the sense of vanquishment was no longer than a few months ago, when I finished Graham Swift’s brilliant novel, Waterland.

Set in the bleak, drab, musty, and aqueous Fen land of East Anglia, Waterland is the profound story of a family marked by tragedy, incest, madness, torment, 240 years of ale-making, and generations of excruciating, pumping manual labor of land reclamation. It’s a big, beautiful endeavor and Swift delivers brilliantly.

This novel screams with energy, fertility, violence, madness, and a profound knowledge of history and drama. Graham Swift slowly unravels the plot of this masterful work much in the vein of Thomas Hardy, but with a wonderful, contemporary verbal felicity and ardor.

There are unbearable scenes in this book — unendurable both for their honest, horrific imagery, but also for the complete mastery with which they’re unfurled for us readers by Swift — little bits at a time, not too slowly, not too quickly. But oh so goddamn eloquently! In particular, there is a long scene dealing with an illegal home abortion performed on one of the characters, which will leave you breathless for the consummate language with which it’s written. The intensity and dynamic of this particular scene is reminiscent of the tableau Hemingway gives us in For Whom the Bell Tolls, in which Fascists and fascist sympathizers are being run through a gauntlet of armed Republicans, and thrown over a cliff. To say it’s acute and agonizing would be watering down the tension. I found myself reading Swift’s passage with jaw fully clenched, at times grinding my teeth. Yeah, this book will make you get that much into it.

If you’re a writer, you’ll think about giving up your craft after reading Swift’s Waterland. But only briefly. This kind of book will ultimately energize you, and fill you with the hunger to continue weaving your own stories. If you’re a reader, a lover of history, humanity, and getting lost in earthy, realistic narratives, you’ll not want to finish this book. You’ll want to dole it out to yourself in increments, maybe daily . . . maybe weekly.

Graham Swift went on to win the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1996 for his novel Last Orders. It is a wonderful book, worthy of the prize indeed, and a great little film as well with Michael Caine, Helen Mirren, and Bob Hoskins among others. It’s recommended at the bottom of this page. But Swift’s career-defining work (at least so far) is his stellar Waterland. Please read this amazing novel and rejoice at the beauty of storytelling; and at the beauty of our language.

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5 Comments

  1. Jordan Blum said on 03/16/12 at 10:02 am Reply

    Fantastic write-up, man. If I wasn’t at school right now, I’d order this immediately. Hell, I’m about to go to the local library site to see if I can borrow it. It’s sort of a beautiful pain to read something that simultaneously makes you feel like a hack and like you want to conquerer the literary world. I’ve felt that many times. It’s such a joy just to know that such great works (and not just literary, of course) exist in the world, but at the same time, feeling like you’ll never come close to matching them is a downer. Still, in the end, it’s life-affirming.

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  2. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 03/16/12 at 10:23 am Reply

    Yes, but really, in the end, it’s the realization that it’s quite all right to feel this way, and that it ultimately pushes you off the familiar platform and makes you want to progress, to explore, to try new things…the risk of failing is always going to be there. But in my eyes, as a writer, you have failed if you keep putting out the same stuff; being a one-trick pony to me is a bigger failure than trying something that doesn’t work ultimately. Man, this book was so beautiful and so good…I sort of want to re-read it now, only a few months after finishing it. Alas, there’s a Jean Gene biography to get through. Molly is expecting great things from me on that one. I will try to deliver.

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  3. Robert Vaughan said on 03/16/12 at 3:06 pm Reply

    Alex, I can relate to the feeling of wanting to pack it all in after experiencing such greatness in a book. Last year, after completing Lidia Yuknavitch’s brilliant Chronology of Water, I had similar thoughts. Fortunately it is memoir, and I write fiction. Still, to be bowled over by the depth of talent is indeed a rarity. I will find this book, Waterland, and though I read so few novels of late (focusing more on collections of flash like Kathy Fish’s latest, Together We Can Bury It, (which I highly recommend!), you have inspired me to place this one on my “to-read” list. Thanks for an insightful review.

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  4. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 03/16/12 at 3:15 pm Reply

    Robert, thanks…and I hope you do grab this book. A lot of us are reading short, sharp pieces or collections…nothing wrong with that, but it must be balanced by long, good works such as this. For some of us writers, it’s vital that we don’t lose connection to the craft of carrying through a novel. This book is beautiful in all aspects of writing: plot, storytelling, dialogue, weaving history with fiction, technique…everything.

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  5. Michelle Elvy said on 03/17/12 at 8:54 pm Reply

    Yep: energized. Thanks for this, Alex. Amazing book, pondering the line between fiction and reality, past and present, history and meaning: all the great stuff.

    Reply

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