What difference does it make?

Deborah Friedell

  • Tomorrow by Graham Swift
    Picador, 248 pp, £16.99, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 330 45018 8

A woman lies in bed next to her husband, unable to sleep: tomorrow they must tell their children a secret, something ‘that will change all our lives’. What is it? For most of the novel we won’t know. A question is raised, the answer is delayed: suspense. In the interim, the woman, her ‘mind adrift in the dark’, imagining that she is addressing her children, reflects on the lives that will change (we do not know how) ‘for ever’. She is an art dealer, called Paula. Her husband, Mike, owns a small publishing house. They are comfortably off and live in Putney. We learn of their upbringings, their courtship, professional successes. They seem pleasant, a little dull. Nothing very gripping happens to them, but the novel zips along: we know – the narration constantly reminds us – that something awful is going to happen. The children are twins, 16, the age that Paula and Mike long ago decided on for their great announcement: ‘“After their 16th birthday”, we said, and let’s be strict about it. Perhaps you may even appreciate our discipline and tact. Let’s be strict, but let’s not be cruel. Give them a week. Let them have their birthday, their last birthday of that old life.’

In his seven previous novels, Graham Swift has committed himself to writing about ordinary Englishmen (this is his first novel narrated entirely by a woman). His characters are shopowners and teachers, clerks, butchers, undertakers, insurance agents. ‘I am the kind of writer,’ he has said, ‘who certainly starts with the ordinary world. The world around the corner, the familiar world. And if there is going to be anything extraordinary, I will find it in that. Of course, there is something extraordinary. There are many extraordinary things.’ But I wonder if it hasn’t usually been the other way around. Three of Swift’s novels feature murders, the others suicides or threats of suicide; there is also car-bombing and kidnapping. ‘It was warm. There was the smell of cooking, something wonderful cooking, wrapping itself round you like a hug. There was Bob on the floor in a puddle of a blood,’ notes the narrator of Swift’s last novel, The Light of Day (2003), with only the delivery matter-of-course: not the extraordinary found in the ordinary, but the extraordinary treated as though it were ordinary.

Swift’s first novel, The Sweet Shop Owner (1980), was a close, impressionistic account of the last day of a man’s life that coolly switched between first and third-person narration. Since his second novel, Shuttlecock (1981), Swift has written solely from the perspectives of his characters, in the words he imagines they would choose themselves, their narrating voices unusually dependent on clichés and non sequiturs. They are not stand-ins for the novelist, preternaturally observant and articulate: how tired that simile is, ‘wrapping itself round you like a hug’, the repetition of ‘cooking’, the grating half rhyme of ‘hug’ and ‘blood’. In Tomorrow, Paula has posher diction – her father was a High Court judge – but readers in search of panache rather than ventriloquism, however expert, must look elsewhere. Play occurs only in puns: Paula married a man called Michael Hook, and is thrilled to have been ‘hooked, or I was the lucky girl who hooked a Hook’. (Swift seems to choose his characters’ names for this purpose – Harry Beech in Out of This World (1988) spends his childhood summers in Cornwall, ‘The Beeches on the beach!’; Charlie Rose, in The Light of Day, is a florist, ‘as if he’d never had a choice: a whole life in a name’.) Despite its flatness, Paula’s voice is compelling, or at least she knows how to tell a story. She baits us by often seeming on the verge of revealing her secret, only to offer a teasing, ‘More on that later.’ She imagines the morning to come, stopping the flash-forward just in time:

Mike will do the talking. He knows, he accepts that it’s up to him. On a Saturday, knowing you both, the morning will be half gone before you even appear for breakfast, and you’ll need your breakfast. Then Mike will say that we need to talk to you. He’ll say it in an odd, uncasual way, and you’ll think twice about answering back. No, right now, please. Whatever other plans you had, drop them. There’ll be something in his voice. He’ll ask you to sit in the living-room. I’ll make some fresh coffee. You’ll wonder what the hell is going on. You’ll think your father’s looking rather strange. But then you might have noticed that already, you might have noticed it all this week. What’s up with Dad? What’s up with the pair of them?

They are not getting a divorce. They haven’t lost their jobs. No one has cancer. Paula is quick to assure us that her secret is older and more devastating, that tomorrow will certainly be the ‘worst day’ of her children’s lives. But before she will reveal it, as if anticipating the need to prepare a statement in her own defence, she holds forth on her good marriage (‘Your Dad hasn’t lost his looks. I think he’s even gained some. I’m biased of course’) and the twins’ joyful childhood (‘You came from happiness, my darlings’). Mike’s lower-class father is warmly embraced by the High Court judge; there are glorious days at Dulwich Picture Gallery, picnics in St James’s Park. Lest we gag on treacle, Paula assures us that a ‘happy home’ is a ‘fantasy out of which we all have to be shaken’ and that her twins will be ‘woken abruptly fairly soon’.

Early on we suspect that what Mike will tell his children concerns their origins, that there is something dubious about how they came to be. Nearly all of Swift’s novels hinge on similar moments of disclosure. In his best and most ambitious novel, Waterland (1983), a man learns that he is the product of father-daughter incest, and a woman, driven mad by her inability to conceive, steals an infant from a pram to raise as her own. In other novels, a couple find a baby alone in a house destroyed in the Blitz and secretly adopt him; a man learns that his father was not a diplomat but an engine-driver; another man learns that his father was not a war hero but a coward and a traitor. An early story, ‘The Son’, begins with an adoptive father declaring it a ‘shameful thing for a man to live 35 years not knowing that his parents are not his parents at all’: his son’s discovery will, naturally, be the story’s crux.

What can be frustrating about Swift’s novels is that they often seem to dodge the questions they so ingeniously raise. ‘What difference does it make?’ one narrator asks. ‘The true or the false. This one or that one’? After all, the ‘world will not shatter because of a single – misconception’. But Swift is less interested in what the rewriting of personal history signifies than in imagining the emotions it might produce: ‘To discover for fifty years of your life you have been labouring under a massive misapprehension is a fair enough reminder at least of your capacity for innocence,’ the narrator of Ever After (1992) decides. ‘It puts a sort of childlike hesitancy into your step and a dazed, receptive smile on your face. It makes you feel – as though you have swallowed some initially tranquilising drug – really quite good.’ In Tomorrow, the twins are ciphers, good children sleeping in their beds down the hall, and the novel ends before their parents sit them down to talk. Swift is telling a story he has nearly told before, but here he tells it from the other side, the narrative of the deceiver, not the one deceived: ‘To tell or not to tell,’ Paula soliloquises. ‘Suppose, having set out, for the best and most carefully considered reasons, on a course of pretence, your deception is suddenly rumbled? And how good, anyway, will you be at pretending? It’s no easy ride.’ But instead of providing a careful chronicle of that difficulty, of how a shared secret might unite a couple, its unearthing threaten or change a marriage, Swift provides only suspense. The novelistic prestidigitations required to keep the reader from guessing the secret too quickly, in tandem with Swift’s decision not to continue the narrative past the point of revelation, prevent Tomorrow from fully examining its subject.

In his essay ‘Why do people read detective stories?’ Edmund Wilson wrote that writers of suspense fiction claim an unfair advantage over other writers: the code that forbids reviewers from giving away their plots too frequently keeps their pointlessness from exposure. Which solutions don’t disappoint? The narrator did it. They all did it! The secret of Tomorrow is very far from thrilling, so far that its banality almost has to be the point. From all the fuss Paula makes, and from having read Swift’s previous novels, my bet was that the children had been snatched as infants, Paula and Mike having murdered their biological parents, possibly in a car-bombing. Instead, what Paula will tell her children is the kind of news that, though it might work as a piece of family gossip, wouldn’t make the tabloids. (It’s something that 30,000 people in the UK do, perfectly legally, every year.) But by making ‘this’ the secret, Swift suggests that it ought to be treated as stranger, more troubling than it is now. Paula spends the novel frightened that her children will judge her harshly, ‘Unless I’m wrong about you. Unless you really do live in that cool and shrugging, impervious world where tomorrow will be just a passing, absorbable jolt to you. And why should I be just as afraid of that? A tougher world, in some way I don’t understand.’ There is something bullying about this: be shocked by this secret or be the denizen of an unfeeling universe.

In Shuttlecock, the narrator argues that ‘it’s in the nature of routine not so much to make things ordinary as to numb you against recognising how remarkable they are.’ Tomorrow is Swift’s attempt to create unease, to estrange the familiar, to dramatise ordinary life as though it were extraordinary. But merely calling something remarkable cannot make it so.