A novel of contemporary England as well as a fascinating and succinct history of the vast, flat Fens of East Anglia, “a landscape which, of all landscapes, most approximated to Nothing.”
It is this primacy of concern for the importance of history that is central to Waterland.
The narrator, Tom Crick, is Head of the History Department of a large, southeast London comprehensive school. Changing educational policies and concerns in the 1980s (when Waterland was written) sees a move towards subjects of more practical relevance than the ‘indulgence’ of history: Crick is taking enforced early retirement as the syllabus changes.
Yet Waterland is part personal history as he reflects on events as a young boy growing up in the Fens and the (fictional) town of Gildsey. It is the scepticism of one of his students of the relevance of history that results in Crick voicing his story.
But to understand the Fens in the 1940s is the need to understand 300 years of history and the challenge of the waterways on land largely below sea level. Through the backstory of Crick’s mother’s family – wealthy landowners and brewers fallen on hard times – we (and his history students) are introduced to the human settlement of the Fens and the impact of the shifting direction of its rivers and waterways.
Murder, incest, guilt, madness, the voice of God, illegitimacy and kidnapping raise their heads throughout Swift’s 1983 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel – yet, perversely, Waterland is an insidiously quietly paced narrative.
A cacophony of characters are introduced over its 300 plus pages: brewing entrepreneurs and landowners of the 18th century, bombastic politicians of the 19th century briefly make their appearance. This personal family narrative of Tom’s has wider historical significance but it is also specific to Tom growing up in a lockkeeper’s cottage aside sluice gates on the River Leem.
It is the discovery of the body of 10 year-old Freddie Parr, washed up against the sluice in 1943, which sets Waterland in motion. As American and British bombers drone overhead on their way to Hamburg or Berlin, the apparently accidental death of Tom’s school friend sets in motion a series of events, the repercussions of which haunt Tom for the rest of his life.
Freddie’s death unleashes questions, suspicions, accusations and further death as family secrets surface involving Tom’s mentally challenged older brother, Dick, their recently-deceased mother along with a long-dead grandfather.
Mixing his narration of personal family life with the prescribed syllabus subject of the French Revolution, Tom explores how the past leads to future consequences and therefore debunking the view history is bunk. He may be inappropriate for his 1980s history lessons, but Tom has nothing to lose. He’s been forced into retirement yet he’s teaching kids who are a generation fearful of nuclear warfare with its lack of a future. For Tom, history is relevant – it is a part of us and we are part of history. It shapes who we are.
Like the Fens waterways themselves, Waterland does not follow an orderly course. It’s non-linear, shifting telling of stories (an apparent family trait) provides different perspectives and vantage points of themes, families, events and landscapes. It is beautifully written. In its slightly crazed, non-chronological narrative, Swift’s novel does occasionally go off track. But that going off track can also produce some wonderful asides: the Freddie Parr schoolboy prank of throwing an eel down Mary’s knickers results in a fabulous 12 page foray into the history of the sex life of eels!
Regarded as his best, Graham Swift and Waterland was nominated for the 1983 Booker Prize, but lost out to J M Coetzee and Life and Times of Michael K. (Swift went on to win the prize with Last Orders in 1996).