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Graham Swift: Waterland

The end of history is a theme we will find in other novels – Günter GrassEin weites Feld (Too Far Afield) is a case in point. Swift, however, makes it quite explicit, with the second chapter actually being entitled About the End of History. This is something of a joke, as the headmaster of the school has just told Tom Crick, the history teacher, that they are cutting history for budgetary reasons. However, the prompt for the story Crick will tell is a student commenting on the irrelevance of history in favour of the present (not the first student to do that!). Crick, who has taught history for over thirty years, now finds himself without a job and finds that, for most people, history is irrelevant. He launches into a personal story about his life and the life of his family in the Fens.

Tom lives with his father, a lock-keeper, and his brother, Dick. Their mother had died when they were young. Dick is mentally retarded but strong and good with machines. The story starts in July 1943, when Tom is fifteen, and a series of misfortunes happen. First of all, Tom discovers a body floating in the lock and it turns out to be his friend, Freddie Parr. Then he suspects his brother as being the murderer. His girlfriend, Mary Metcalf, motherless like him, gets pregnant and has an abortion by jumping off an embankment, which makes her sterile. The two marry but never have children – Mary won’t even adopt – till Mary, much older, wants a child and abducts a baby. Though she is soon caught and the baby safely returned, the episode is used by the headmaster to get rid of Tom.

But Swift’s novel is much more complicated than this basic plot outline indicates. Not only does he look at the idea of the end of history, he gives particular attention to the idea that history is not just the great movements we learn about in school but is also about individuals making minor changes which, together, may have an impact, if only locally. The idea of life cycles is predominant, both in the family saga approach but also in the lovingly recreated natural history of the Fens. And, of course, the idea that history is not just dry facts but also legends and embellished tales is key to the novel. I very much like novels where the landscape is as much a key player as the characters and this is very much the case here, with Swift showing us in superb fashion how England was made not just by its kings and queens but by its people.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by William Heinemann