By Graham Swift
Random House Canada,
255 pages, $32.95
Once you start lying, especially within a family, with its generational memory, how and when do you stop? Pauline Hook, the narrator of Graham Swift's taut new novel Tomorrow, is coming clean with a family secret. But her biologist husband Mike knows that lies, like some organisms, self-replicate. As Pauline and Mike prepare to unburden themselves of a deception they've perpetuated on their twin children for 16 years, we glimpse more than one subterfuge sleeping under the family roof.
Tomorrow is an unrepentantly domestic novel about, as it says, "how our big feelings can get drawn out of us by small things." Mike and Pauline Hook are English baby boomers who fall in love as undergrads and stay in love through her successful career as an art dealer and his as a scientific publisher. All of this professional expertise becomes required in their home life as they raise their twin children, Nick and Kate, on love, privilege, seeming decency and a lie they plan to disown a week after the kids turn 16. Pauline narrates the story, revealing 50 years of multi-generational family life in a sleepless night before the day of reckoning.
Much of the novel's considerable power derives from a sheer love of love. This knowing, probing and at times unflinching portrait of coupledom explores Pauline and Mike's romantic trajectory from idealistic students into ambitious young professionals and then, late for them, parents. Wisely and affectionately, Swift suggests that (literally) sleeping with someone night in and night out is a way of knowing him or her.
He's equally accurate, but bolder, in his portrayal of the communicative checks and balances in a long-term relationship, where brave honesty is also accompanied by generous discretion. This domestic romance affords Swift very serious and very understandable adult questions. Maybe a mid-life, mid-marriage weekend affair really is just a search for "comparison" or even "reassurance." Swift, nearly 60, reminds us that "as a couple gets older there's only one, unspoken question. ... Who will go first?"
Because this novel takes place on the eve of revelation, not in its aftermath, connubial bliss, wisdom and challenge remain the focus of the novel, and they are delivered with graceful, nimble and regularly arresting prose. A divorced father's limited access to his children is described as "family planning - in reverse." On a humid day, the air feels "like cattle's breath." For months after the death of her father, the narrator is routinely "sabotaged" by tears. During his funeral, she welcomed the live bagpipe music, knowing "if you're going to have to hear that wailing sound, there's an argument that says let it be at a funeral, at a burial, when its keening and skirling will get to you."
Even deeper skills emerge in Swift's impressively hermaphroditic work with gender. With Last Orders, deserving winner of the 1996 Booker Prize, Swift showed himself capable of working with multiple voices. Now, in Tomorrow he works exclusively with a female narrator, a technique his recent interview in this newspaper modestly describes as being required by "any decent writer," but which nonetheless is rarely accomplished so thoroughly and convincingly. Swift doesn't simply sustain a multifaceted and multiply accurate portrait of a female narrator; more shrewdly, he layers that impressive work into this examination of how much we do and do not know within a family.
Swift works first to imbue his female narrator with countless realistic details, then adds emotional complexity and a goodly amount of brow-raising sex. This tone, in which we hear of but not from Mike and their children, embodies how we live and learn within families, stranded as we are in just one vantage point and working only ever with scraps of incomplete information.
While the sexual segregation of the narration is a gain, not a loss, other work along gender lines, obviously conscious, constitutes a lost opportunity. Pauline's total estrangement from her mother is left unexplained and so remains in the background. When Pauline worries on every third page that the secret she is about to spill to her children will estrange them from her, more reflection might have been given to the distance between herself and her own mother.
The couple's wealth is another distraction. The family wine cellars, multiple households and Renaissance paintings reduce the transferability of the story and possibly even its sadness. The novel is at its best when suggesting that deception runs through all families, yet it's hard to relate to a couple who can always just pop over to their country home in France when the going gets tough.
Graham Swift's best novels, Tomorrow among them, don't lie for a second about the human heart. From the unforgettable first chapter of Waterland on into the tough love and verbal dexterity of Last Orders, Swift expertly mines how we love and learn.
Darryl Whetter teaches English at Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia. His bicycle novel, The Push & the Pull, will be released in spring.
Today is the day
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 in this house on this night before the day that will change all our lives. Thought 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 that 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 the illusion - is cross my fingers.