Saturday, 11 April 2009

Tomorrow - Graham Swift

Read: April 2007

On a wet summer night in 1995 Paula Hook lies awake worrying. Her husband, Mike, is asleep by her side, sleeping “on the eve of his execution.” Her sixteen year old twins in their bedrooms, completely unaware of what awaits them tomorrow. So while “everything’s quiet, the house is still”, Paula recalls the course of her fifty year life, attempting to fully explain the background to what Mike will tell their children tomorrow. Tomorrow. They have been avoiding this for sixteen years but now the time has come and the truth must be told. Tomorrow will transform their family forever.

The story that unfolds as night turns to dawn is both a solemn promise of love to her husband, and a requiem to the pretence of happy families. It is a study of identity, an insight into a woman who is at once an individual, a wife and a mother. Although narrated to address her children, it is a story they probably don’t want to hear, the story of their mother as a human being, of her twenty-five year marriage and of her life before the children were born. Paula is telling the story of parenthood: from youth and desperate longing to unbridled joy and unequivocal ingratitude. The atmosphere is authentic, reading it you can feel Paula’s emotions and it is a delight to meet such a rounded and quietly likable character.

Her vocabulary and language is bland and unremarkable but somehow Graham Swift manages to make is sound unobtrusively and naturally poignant. Many authors speak with the same voice in each novel but Swift has always had an aptitude for tailoring his prose to the nature of his characters. This is most apparent in ‘Last Orders’ and ‘Waterland’ and although this book is nowhere near as good as they were, it is apparent here. There is much to relate ‘Tomorrow’ to Swift’s last offering, ‘The Light of Day’. “To love is to be ready to lose, it's not to have, to keep.” This could easily be the epitaph to ‘Tomorrow’.

Other reviews have noted that many of the characters and scenarios are used as springboards for puns. For instance a black cat becomes the ‘catalyst’ and allows the vet to play with Paula’s pussy (cat). I enjoyed this word play however; it gave the story a lighter touch and grew to feel more like a quirk of personality than an annoying authorial intrusion into the story.

What did annoy me was the unnecessary mystery. It is not until almost 150 pages that you reach the phrase: ‘this is where your story really begins.’ This is not a problem in itself. I for one love novels which are written to address a real character, not the reader. There is something much more honest about characters who speak as though some things in their life are too well known to mention. Family folklore is not overly explained, the reader is left to decipher the family on their own. However, while this is great for the general style of the novel, it falls down over the event that is at its heart. Tomorrow’s event which Paula has been worrying about turns out to be a huge let-down. Sure it is a revelation which will take some getting used to, but in this day and age it is hardly unusual. Talk about making a drama out of a crisis.

The result is that when you turn over the last page you are left feeling oddly unsatisfied. Reading ‘Tomorrow’ is like being forced to watch a home movie. There are all the bits where someone says “ooh, watch here, this bit is so funny,” and you sit there scratching your head. But then you go away from it feeling glad you watched, as though the voyeuristic insight into another family has taught you something about your own.

The inner workings of a family is tricky ground and absorbing when done well. To a large extent Graham Swift succeeds in telling an enjoyable story about quietly believable characters. There is something silently real here. It is a book that many people are going to love and relate to. It is just a shame that the revelation it is centred around is so ultimately disappointing.

5.5 out of 10

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