by Graham Swift
“Literature, after all, from Homer onwards, is littered with the recounting of deaths and with the fascination for death, and in this it only expresses what we all repeatedly dwell on but do not necessarily or readily voice. So far as death goes, I don't claim any oddity. There is only one sea: I'm in the same boat as everyone else. And that seems, more generally, to be the position that every novelist, unless they are possessed of a peculiar arrogance, should take: I am mortal too, I am human too. I too, like you, share life's joys, pains, confusions. We're all in the same boat.” ― Graham Swift
Today is the birth anniversary of Graham Swift who was born in 1949. This is his Booker Prize-winning novel from 1996. Some have noted similarities between it and Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, but that does not detract from its quality which has been evident in Swift's writing since his earlier success with Waterland (a novel that was short-listed for the Booker). While I found it a bit slow at first, it eventually evolved into a captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II. When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request--namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. None could be better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies--insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war.
The narrative start is developed with an economy that presents (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth with a minimum of melodrama. The group is uncomfortable at first as evidenced by weak and self- conscious jocular remarks when they meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader gradually learns why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does--or so he thinks. As you might expect there are stories shared with topics like tales of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms. There is even a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling sea waves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Graham Swift is able to avoid artificiality by listening closely to these lives and presenting realistic voices that share stories of humanity with the proverbial ring of truth.
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