Waterland is primarily a book about history: about how one event leads to another which leads to another, about the importance of understanding history, and about how the history of an area or landscape can shape a people. The last of these aspects shapes one of the best parts of the book: its depiction of the Fens. The book’s protagonist and narrator, Tom Crick, is a history teacher in a school in Greenwich. His position is precarious as the school sees history as holding little value and wishes to merge it with General Studies by getting rid of Crick. When his wife, Mary, steals a baby (which is more understandable when it occurs in the book than in summary here), leading to a bunch of bad press, Crick’s days are numbered.
This provides the frame in which the primary narrative occurs. Crick tells his pupils of his childhood, and the events surrounding the discovery of a body in a sluice in 1937. I shall avoid details here since at times, Waterland feels as if it has much in common with mystery novels, and it builds towards a series of revelations in masterful fashion.
Swift’s brilliance in this book lies in his versatility. He jumps around within the timeline frequently and draws upon almost 300 years-worth of family history and connection to the Fens in constructing his characters. Much of what occurs has a feeling of inevitability to it as a result. Swift combines this narrative progression with moments of extended lyrical descriptions of the Fenlands, and detailed descriptions of characters’ movements and actions. And since he is adopting the voice of a history teacher, he slips in commentary on all sorts of philosophical or ideological positions.
I loved this novel. I considered it beautifully constructed and, interestingly, by far a more captivating piece than Last Orders, for which Swift won the prize in 1996. I’m actually a little surprised that Life & Times of Michael K beat Swift in 1983. It’s not where my vote would have gone.