*pout* I’m not having much luck with my fiction reading at the moment.
I am spoiled for choice with non-fiction: I have started Rebe Taylor’s Into the Heart of Tasmania: A Search for Human Antiquity but then Tony Kevin’s new book Return to Moscow came into the library – and I just took a little peek at it when the traffic lights were red and kept going when I got home. I’ve got an intriguing new bio called Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait and a beautiful National Library of Australia bio called Looking for Rose Paterson: How Family Bush Life Nurtured Banjo the Poet.
But my bedtime fiction reading has been no good at all. After the debacle of Sarah Dunant’s Transgressions (see my disappointed review) I tried Australian poet Libby Angel’s The Trapeze Act, expecting to like it after hearing about it on Radio National’s Books and Arts program, but no, I gave it 50 pages but just couldn’t muster the interest to keep going. Then I took up Ouyang Yu’s new novella Billy Sing – and I do like it, but relaxing bedtime reading it’s not. I need my wits about me to read Ouyang Yu. I really need something easy-to-read-but-interesting while I’m having trouble with my eyes, so I looked on the TBR for a tried and trusted author… and there was Graham Swift, author of books I loved: the Booker-winning Last Orders, (1996), Waterland, (1983) The Light of Day (2003), and more recently Mothering Sunday (2016) (see my review). What could go wrong?
I should have remembered my experience with Wish You Were Here (2011). That was a dud (see my review) but it failed to alert me to the possibility that worse might be in store. Words fail me when I try to explain how much I disliked Graham Swift’s Tomorrow: it is possibly the most exasperating book I’ve ever read.
It’s narrated by a mother lying awake at night, thinking about the secret about to be revealed to her twin children the following day. It is narrated in the incredibly annoying second person, as she addresses these hapless children, who have just turned sixteen. (This is how I know I bought this book sight unseen on the strength of Swift’s name (probably from a Readings’ catalogue, but I don’t blame them). If I had set eyes on these introductory words, I would never have spent my hard-earned money on it:
You’re asleep, my angels, I assume. So, to my amazement and relief, is your father, like a man finding it in him to sleep on the eve of his execution. He’ll need all he can muster tomorrow. I’m the only one awake on this night before the day that will change all our lives. Though it’s already that day: the little luminous hands on my alarm clock (which I haven’t set) show just gone one in the morning. And the nights are short. It’s almost midsummer, 1995. It’s a week past your sixteenth birthday. By a fluke that’s become something of an embarrassment and some people will say wasn’t a fluke at all, you were born in Gemini. I’m not an especially superstitious woman. I married a scientist. But one little thing I’ll do tomorrow – today, I mean, but for a little while still I can keep up an illusion – is cross my fingers. (p.1)
Are your teeth on edge already? Mine were, and (merely from typing it) still are, and now I don’t understand why I kept on going. A vague interest in what the earth-shattering secret might be, I suppose, (plus I was too warm and comfortable to get out of bed and choose another book). But before long I knew that this secret wasn’t something interesting, like their father having been a Soviet spy or that she was really the offspring of an escaped Romanov and that there was a fortune awaiting them in de-Sovietised Russia. No, clearly it was some commonplace domestic secret. Either the parents were splitting up, or that their parentage was not what they thought it was. Or both. Either way, she was overdramatising it.
BEWARE SPOILERS: (sarcastic *drum roll)
Well, this woman’s ramblings took the best part of 250 pages to reveal the news. Will I tell? Yes I will, if only to save others. They are IVF babies (but lucky not to be the vet’s because she had a fling roundabout the crucial time). If, appalled by the lies they’ve been fed, the twins are devastated by this news, plunging the Staysharp into their mother’s heaving breast and spurning their non-biological father for evermore, the reader will never know, because this novel is not about that. It’s all about her.
In a monologue so tedious I am loath to note that the-obviously-not-a-coincidence-of-dates hints at a failed emulation of Molly’s stream of consciousness in Ulysses, she tells them about an assortment of relations dead and alive; about meeting their father and (more than any teenager would want to know) about all the lusty sex she had with him; about the father’s interest in snails (someone must be, I suppose) and (reading between the lines) how she and her successful gallery and her supreme court judge father are the ones i.e. not their dad, who have made their pleasant middle-class life possible. (Yes, she is a bit spiteful, and/or also deep-down resentful and blame-shifting about his fertility problem). There is a lot about a cat called Otis as well.
What was Swift thinking? Was he channelling his namesake and writing a dubious satire of women’s writing about not-earth-shattering domestic issues? Could I find a review that revealed something I had missed? No, I could not. If you have nothing better to do than the dusting or weeding or doing the ironing, read about the critical reaction at Wikipedia…
But do remember, Graham Swift is an author of significant, powerful, luminous novels (see paragraph 1). It’s just that this is definitely not one of them.
Author: Graham Swift
Publisher: Picador, 2007
ISBN: 9780330450188 (hbk.)
Source: Personal library.
No. If you won’t be warned off, you can find a copy by yourselves.