Wednesday, March 08, 2023

the last book I read

Tomorrow by Graham Swift.

Paula Hook's life seems pretty sweet, on the face of it: beloved husband Mike, nice dual income (she is an art dealer, he is the editor of a successful science magazine), nice house, two lovely kids (twins, Kate and Nick). And yet here she is, in the early hours of the morning, her husband snoring post-coitally beside her, fretting over the impending revelation of a family secret to the children, something she fears will change their lives irrevocably. It's a fully planned-for revelation. Paula and Mike having agreed long ago to do it shortly after the twins' sixteenth birthday, but it's still a daunting prospect.

So what is it? Come on, you know how this works: that would make for a very short novel, for one thing. No, we need to circle our way round to the central subject by adding in some explanatory context first, specifically a potted history of how Paula and Mike met (at Sussex University in the mid-1960s) and fell in love, awkward early meetings with in-laws (especially Paula's father Dougie who is, rather intimidatingly, a High Court judge), early married life, money worries (it is Paula who is the main breadwinner in their early years), and, as the years roll on, just a hint of a suspicion of a raised eyebrow from the in-laws about the lack of any kids being produced.

In fact Paula and Mike have done some reflecting on this situation already and have had some tests done which revealed that Mike has a very low sperm count. No worries, they conclude, we'll just tip the odds in our favour by throwing lots of sex at the problem. Some more years go by and it's clear this isn't working, though. It's only the slightly random acquisition of a cat, Otis, that prompts some reflection on this situation, as when Paula takes Otis to the vet he nods, sagely and says: ah, a child substitute. Do Mike and Paula want to just be cat people, or do they want to do something about it?

It's about here that the reader starts to get a glimpse of roughly where this is heading: something about Kate and Nick's parentage, or the circumstances of their early lives. A whole host of options here, from the sort of baby-abduction described in Swift's earlier novel Waterland to the more lurid stuff featured in The Midwich Cuckoos or The Boys From Brazil. The trouble with the (seemingly) endless deferral of the revelation, as demanded by the novel's own architecture, is that anything short of alien zombie Hitler is going to seem like a bit of an anti-climax. That said, the actual revelation here [PLOT SPOILER ALERT], which is that Paula and Mike were some of the earliest recipients of IVF (in 1978, the same year Louise Brown was born), probably would have seemed like a bit of a let-down on page one of a one-page novel. There is a little bit of extra spice, to be fair, in that Mike's rancid old jism being utterly useless for conception purposes even in a lab-assisted environment meant that donor sperm had to be used, and that therefore Mike is not the biological father of his own children. Even then, though, it's fairly thin gruel after 150-odd pages of Paula's tortured build-up.

Even though Tomorrow is fairly short at about 250 pages, there do seem to be a few episodes whose narrative purpose isn't particularly clear, unless it's just to bump up the page count. The whole business with Otis the cat is clearly meant to foreshadow the challenges and anxieties of having kids in some way, but really mainly serves to contrive a series of meetings between Paula and vet Alan Fraser, meetings which culminate in a stolen weekend together in a hotel when she's meant to be in Paris on an art-acquisition trip. The excuse Paula presents for this - she's preparing herself in some way for carrying another man's child - doesn't really make any sense. Similarly the episode shoehorned in near the end where Paula recounts Mike's rescuing both of the twins from drowning in the sea when they were younger doesn't seem to have any point other than to illustrate that Mike is a good swimmer and really loves his kids. 

There's plenty of good stuff here about how love and marriage evolves from the early carefree days of spending all day naked in bed together drinking champagne to the constraints imposed by having kids and how these radical transformations aren't better or worse, necessarily, just different. It's just that all that good stuff is hitched to a structure and a central revelation that seems to invite a shrug and an "is that it?". 

Quite a few of the reviews of Tomorrow made similar criticisms; I particularly enjoyed this Irish Times article which recounts an especially grumpy interview with Swift in the aftermath of a lukewarm review of Tomorrow. One thing that none of the ones I've read mention, as far as I can see anyway, is the structural similarity between Tomorrow and Hanif Kureishi's Intimacy. Unless I'm remembering it completely wrongly, that novel also features one half of a couple, up late while their family sleeps,  contemplating a life-changing announcement that they're going to make the following morning, though the nature of the announcement is quite different. The long-deferred revelation of something from a family's past is a common feature of Barbara Vine's novels as well, though generally the central revelation is of something a bit more juicy. 

Anyway, Swift is a fine writer but this is probably the weakest of the half-dozen or so of his novels that I've read; both of its predecessors here - The Light Of Day and Shuttlecock - are more satisfying. John Crace nails some of its flaws in this Digested Reads column. Waterland remains the one to read, anyway. 

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