Monday, April 25, 2011

the last book I read

The Light Of Day by Graham Swift.

George Webb is an ex-cop, thrown off the force after being caught coercing a witness to try to secure a confession; drawing on his police experience he now makes a living as a private detective, specialising in, hem hem, "matrimonial" work, i.e. snooping on errant husbands on behalf of their suspicious wives.

George isn't above occasionally providing, hem hem, "comfort" of a physical nature to his lady clients, despite the obvious moral dubiousness involved in doing so - indeed his receptionist and general Girl Friday, Rita, reached that position via the preliminary ones of client and lover.

Sarah Nash is a bit different, though - not in terms of her requirements, which are pretty similar to everyone else's, but in terms of George's reaction to her. By the time the preliminaries have been addressed and the terms of George's engagement agreed - follow Sarah's husband Bob and their Croatian lodger (and Bob's lover) Kristina to Heathrow and make sure he puts her on a plane and then returns home - George has fallen in love with Sarah. Which makes for some complications when, everything having panned out as required at the airport, Bob returns home to Sarah and she stabs him to death with a carving knife while a pot of coq au vin simmers away in the background.

So, like A Dark-Adapted Eye, it's not really a whodunit, as we know who and, broadly, why within the first few chapters. Some back-story is provided for George: his father's affair with the mother of one of George's schoolfriends, and George's silent collusion in keeping it a secret from his mother, the break-up of George's marriage to his wife Rachel in the wake of his disgraced exit from the police force and the subsequent tentative re-establishing of contact with his daughter Helen.

After the court case and Sarah's subsequent imprisonment for Bob's murder George establishes a routine of regular prison visits, and it's the occasion of one of these on the second anniversary of the murder that provides the "now" (i.e. by the book's own internal timeline) that the story hangs off, and provides the trigger for the increasingly minute and obsessional re-working of the events of the fateful day in George's head. Ironically, of course, however forensically George picks over the known sequence of events, certain key elements remain out of reach: what did Bob and Kristina say to each other at the airport? what did Bob say or do when he got home to turn a tense reconciliation over a plate of coq au vin and a glass of wine into a crime scene? what could George have done to prevent things from turning out as they did?

That's the whole point, of course: regret, remorse, the impossibility of really getting inside someone's head and finding out what they're thinking (even someone you're married to), the arbitrary and senseless nature of human love and passion. George's literary voice is deadpan and un-frilly; this is one of those novels where you feel the author spent as much time taking stuff out as in putting it in.

Structurally it's all very clever, and Swift makes you work a bit by introducing characters and events without much explanation, so you have to pay attention to work out the context. George's instant infatuation with Sarah and subsequent dedication to a lifetime of prison visits to see her seems a bit implausible, but I suppose it's axiomatic that love at first sight isn't really based on a sober and rational underpinning.

Good though this is I don't think it's quite up to the standard of the other Swifts I've read - Last Orders, Ever After and Waterland - but that's more a reflection of how good they are rather than there being anything much wrong with The Light Of Day. I know I've said it before, but Waterland remains one of my favourite novels: if you haven't read it, go and do it now.

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