Reading this collection of stories set (as is blindingly obvious) in England, brought to my mind something another English writer once wrote in another book set in the United Kingdom. In London Fields, Martin Amis said: “And meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.”
This came to mind not because Graham Swift’s stories are particularly gloomy, or focus on suicidal folk, but because it reveals a little about why writers choose to turn a microscopic eye on places they know best. It reminds them, every now and again, of why the quotidian matters as much as the monumental.
England and Other Stories, Graham Swift, Simon and Schuster, R599. Available at leading bookstores.
Swift is better equipped, than most writers of his generation, to tackle the short story because of his propensity to use prose sparingly. His novels are taut, their characters drawn with deft brushstrokes. Consider Ray ‘Lucky’ Johnson or Lenny ‘Gunner’ Tate from his 1996 novel, Last Orders. The protagonists of these stories are as powerful, each caught in a moment of time that is crucial to them, allowing Swift to spin a tale around these happenings.
What makes this collection work so well is Swift’s ability to arouse empathy, never an easy task. How would a heterosexual feel this for a girl who realises she is a lesbian, for instance? Why would one be moved by a story that involves a young boy, his older neighbour and a uniquely British cleaning product? How could the story of a man ruminating on packets of pasta in a supermarket possibly affect us too? Swift stops these lives for a minute or two, allowing us to examine them in detail, simultaneously chronicling the history of his country in 2014. He shows us how our past continues to inform our present. And he does it all very well.