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Graham Swift: The Sweet-Shop Owner
The Sweet-Shop Owner was Graham Swift’s first novel but was nevertheless very accomplished. It is, in fact, the story of the last day of the life of Willy Chapman and is narrated primarily by him, with some help from his dead wife, Irene. (This same technique is used in Last Orders, where the deceased Jack Dodds joins in the narration.) Willy has married a rich woman, Irene, but it is not a loving marriage. She is trying to escape her family and she uses her money to buy Willy a sweet shop. They have one child – Dorothy (Dorry) – but neither Irene nor Willy have a good relationship with her and, in the end, she abandons her father in his old age.
Several of the themes we are to see in later Swift novels emerge here. The first theme is that the world is changing around us, even if we choose not to notice it. Willy remains attached to his sweet shop but, around him, the world is changing. World War II comes to have an impact on Willy as it does on many of Swift’s characters. Though he does not fight in it, as some of the characters in the later novels do, he is involved in maintaining stores. However, he tries to push the war aside, almost denying it. Relationships, particularly marital and parent-child relationships, are important for Swift and they generally seem to be troubled. Many of the children in Swift’s novels reject their parents and, in Sweet-Shop Owner, this is an important theme, as Dorry rejects both her mother and, at the end, her father. Why? For Swift, it seems, that each generation has to find its own path in life, independently of the previous generation but, at the same time, it cannot ignore the past, which will come back to haunt it, whether it is in the form of Freddy Parr’s body in Waterland or Dorry’s ransacking of her late mother’s things in this novel.
First published 1980 by Allen Lane