Floating

Christopher Driver

  • Waterland by Graham Swift
    Heinemann, 310 pp, £7.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 434 75330 0
  • Perfect Happiness by Penelope Lively
    Heinemann, 233 pp, £7.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 434 42740 3
  • Scenes from Later Life by William Cooper
    Macmillan, 258 pp, £7.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 333 34204 6
  • Summer at The Haven by Katharine Moore
    Allison and Busby, 158 pp, £6.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 85031 511 5

Of these novels, the one with legs and a long finish, as the wine-tasters say, is Graham Swift’s Waterland, his third. The story – which is at once story and history, erzählung and geschichte – is sustained within, or threaded into, an intricate web of interlocking images. Or rather, to respect its prevailing metaphor, it floats and develops in an amniotic fluid of local, biological and antiquarian detail. The precision of this detail is hugely relished. The reader emerges dripping from his involuntary immersion, boasting better knowledge of the Fenland lock-system, the ecology of beer, and the life-cycle of the eel, than most people expect novels to supply. At the same time, there is no sense of self-indulgent Dickensian sprawl about these excursuses. They are properly canalised tributaries to the book’s total preoccupation with liquidity. The epigraph is drawn from Great Expectations: ‘Ours was the marsh country.’ But Heraclitus got there first with ‘Everything flows.’

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[*] Penguin, 216 pp., £1.50, June, 0 1400 61177.

[†] Scenes from Provincial Life: 217 pp., 0 413 53090 6; Scenes from Metropolitan Life: 214 pp., 0 413 53100 7; Scenes from Married Life: 232 pp., 0 413 53120 1. All £2.95, 8 September.