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Waterland by Graham Swift

Waterland (original 1983; edition 1992)

by Graham Swift

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,725254,104 (3.96)102
Authors:Graham Swift
Info:Vintage (1992), Paperback, 368 pages
Collections:Your library

Work details

Waterland by Graham Swift (1983)

  1. 10
    The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (chrisharpe)
  2. 10
    Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish by James Prosek (ehines)
    ehines: A character in Waterland is fixated by eels: their elusive nature, myths surrounding them, and how the riddle of their origin was finally solved. Waterland is mentioned in the Introduction as one of the inspirations for Prosek's book.
  3. 00
    Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet (tim_halpin)
    tim_halpin: Similar obsession with the connection between History (with a capital H) and ordinary people's lives. Same historical scope. Also, coincidentally, both set in the East of England.
  4. 00
    Ulverton by Adam Thorpe (chrisharpe)

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» See also 102 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
While I’ve enjoyed Swift’s discursive style in some of his other novels, I found this one too verbally repetitive and would have preferred less looping around, retelling again and again bits of his story, continually referring to himself as ‘your history-teacher-in-the-making’.

Of course, the idea that he could deliver such a long discourse to his students to re-engage them with history by abandoning the syllabus and telling them his life story is not credible, but then he does at one point talk of making up conversations so the reader could take this as one of them – except that Lewis, the headmaster, has shown his disapproval of Crick deviating from the set course.

I think that this novel would have worked well had it had a more direct style. It contains thought-provoking material even if the examination of the role of history is too drawn out for me and it’s the smaller snippets that appeal – such as ‘how we yearn even for the gold of a July evening on which, although things had already gone wrong, things had not gone wrong as much as they were going to’.

I found this book hard-going because of the stretched out sentences and the repetition, all there no doubt to support what Swift says about history but unappealing – and I also had some doubts about some of the characterisation – Helen happy to be her father’s lover, Tom happy to share Mary with Dick . . . ( )
  evening | May 21, 2015 |
A slow but, I think, worthwhile read. The cover on my edition has a blurb from The New York Times that calls this book, "A gothic family saga, a detective story and a philosophical meditation on the nature and use of history". That describes 'Waterland' pretty well. The other word that describes this book is, "Exhausting". There is an exhausting level of detail in exploring the regional and familial history of the narrator. Swift's use of sentence structure can also be exhausting; he has a tendency to interject extraneous phrases - with no immediate sense of purpose and with nary a warning, seemingly to show off his wordsmithery rather than to propel the reader in any specific direction - into his sentences, (yes, that was an example). To be fair, it mostly works pretty well, but there are times where it becomes irritating. If you can work past the multitude of mini-digressions inherent in this style of writing, then lurking within, you will find an interesting tale. But you will need some patience to sift it out of the silty fenlands of Swift's imagination. ( )
  ScoLgo | Nov 5, 2014 |
I started this book expecting I might dislike it. I did dislike the topic of incest but was key to the story which is really a detective story and so much more. A fictional autobiography being told by Tom Crick as he teaches his students about why history. It is meditative; exploring fate, responsibility and history. Tom tells the story of his family’s roots and the Fen area of East Anglia. It also is a story of storytelling.

Epigram: Historia, -ae, f. 1. inquiry, investigation, learning. 2. a) a narrative of past events, history. b) any kind of narrative: account, tale, story.

“And don’t forget’, my father would say, as if he expected me at any moment to up and leave to seek my fortune in the wide world, ‘whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother’s milk….’

Until a series of encounters with the Here and Now gave a sudden urgency to my studies. Until the Here and Now, gripping me by the arm, slapping my face and telling me to take a good look at the mess I was in, informed me that history was no invention but indeed existed — and I had become a part of it.

Supposing it's the other way round. Supposing it's revolutions which divert and impede the course of our inborn curiosity. Supposing it's curiosity — which inspires our sexual explorations and feeds our desires to hear and tell stories — which is our natural and fundamental state of mind. Supposing it's our insatiable and feverish desire to know about things, to know about each other, always to be sniff-sniffing things out, which is the true and rightful subverter and defeats even our impulse for historical progression.

Children, only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. Man man — let me offer you a definition — is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right.

Fen: a type of wetland, fens are a kind of mire.
Fabianism: British socialist organisation whose purpose is to advance the principles of socialism via gradualist and reformist means
Atavism: tendency to revert to ancestral type. In biology, an atavism is an evolutionary throwback, such as traits reappearing which had disappeared generations before.
jingoism: patriotism in the form of aggressive foreign policy. Jingoism also refers to a country's advocation of the use of threats or actual force

On the bank in the thickening dusk, in the will-o’ the wisp dusk, abandoned but vigilant, a motorcycle.

RATING: very good ( )
  Kristelh | Sep 19, 2014 |
“That's the way it is: life includes a lot of empty space. We are one-tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water; life is one-tenth Here and Now, nine-tenths a history lesson. For most of the time the Here and Now is neither now nor here.”

Tom Crick is a history teacher about to be sacked because of something that his wife has done and because both his students and the school Head cannot see the relevance of the topic in today's world. So he decides to abandon the syllabus and instead tell his class about his and his family's history on the Fens rather than about the French Revolution thats he supposed to be teaching,

Without wanting to sound jingoistic I believe that,certainly in the latter years of their education, that children, wherever they are in the world, should be taught about their own countries History rather than that of some place that they might never visit thus giving them a background to their own lives. Therefore I loved the idea of History teacher going off piste like this.

Despite being only about 300 pages long this is a 'vast' novel that touches on so many topics. Ranging from the Fens and in particular their reclamation from the sea,childhood and sense of place in later life, incest, sexual awakening, family ties, murder and suicide, eels and even a post apocalyptic world to name but a some. However, probably the most over-riding question is why do humans feel the need to tell stories?

Overall I enjoyed the author's writing style and his descriptions of the vast flatness on the Fens was very evocative but I must also admit that I got a little bogged down in the prose on occasions. Hence it does not quite get full marks but still a very enjoyable read. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Jul 13, 2014 |
Masterful, engaging and hugely sweeping epic of the fens and ones man’s life

Why are the Fens flat? So God has a clear view..

Deep breath. Oh where to start and how to describe. This is the story of one man’s life, a desperate monologue from a teacher at the end of his days to his last class. It is the story of his ancestors, their wayward paths culminating in this moment. It is a fascinating look at history of the waterlogged wet lands, of the flat muddy fens in east England and its never ending fight against water. It is an ambitious take on the broad sweep of geography and politics, of good beer and the sex lives of eels. It is a mesmerising exploration of myths and superstitions, of the lies and tragedies, of hope and curiosity of the fens. It is a gripping tale of insanity and murder, of love and gods. An intelligent take on what history means and what it’s for. It is a meta-fictional, wry take on the nature of biographies and all their glories and deceptions and a beautiful playful poke at literary structure. It is a story of stories.

CHILDREN, CHILDREN, who will inherit the world. Children (for always, even though you fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, candidates for that appeasing term ‘young adults’, I addressed you silently as ‘children’) - children, before whom I have stood for thirty-two years in order to unravel the mysteries of the past, but before I am to stand no longer, listen, one last time to your history teacher.

For this is 52 yr old Tom Crick’s last story, an acknowledgement of all that connects him to this moment, of the sweeping tide of history that has carried him to this ephinany of his life. It is at its heart a damn good yarn, a beautiful, heartfelt.. well tragedy or happy, reaffirming redemption? That my friends would be a spoiler.

That Swift managed to write an engaging story in the format of a monologue, that he manages to pack so much in without the dissolution of the whole, that he can weave back and forth in time without confusion and slowly, carefully unfurl a page turning story whilst grappling with heavy weighty themes is stunning. As Swift says in the forward he felt he could get with away with anything and he was right. It may not be to your taste, but it’s a fascinating and easy read nonetheless, one that works on so many levels, ones I haven’t even had space to discuss, I really wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

“But man - let me offer you a definition - is the storytelling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right. Even in his last moments, it's said, in the split second of a fatal fall - or when he's about to drown - he sees, passing rapidly before him, the story of his whole life.”

Highly recommended, one of the best books of the year. ( )
4 vote clfisha | Apr 23, 2014 |
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"And don't forget," my father would say, as if he expected me at any moment to up and leave to seek my fortune in the wide world, "whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother's milk . . . "
Children, be curious.  Nothing is worse (I know it) than when curiosity stops.  Nothing is more repressive than the repression of curiosity.  Curiosity begets love.  It weds us to the world. (pg.206)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679739793, Paperback)

Set in the bleak Fen Country of East Anglia, and spanning some 240 years in the lives of its haunted narrator and his ancestors, Waterland is a book that takes in eels and incest, ale-making and madness, the heartless sweep of history and a family romance as tormented as any in Greek tragedy.

"Waterland, like the Hardy novels, carries with all else a profound knowledge of a people, a place, and their interweaving.... Swift tells his tale with wonderful contemporary verve and verbal felicity.... A fine and original work."--Los Angeles Times

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:31 -0400)

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A history teacher besieged by a personal crisis and the "phasing out" of his teaching job abandons his lessons to relate tales of Fenland and his family.

(summary from another edition)

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