by Graham Swift

Paperback(1st Vintage International Edition)

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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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679739791
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/31/1992
Series: Vintage International Series
Edition description: 1st Vintage International Edition
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 273,733
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Graham Swift is the author of six novels, including the Booker Prize-winning Last Orders. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages. He lives in London, England.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from the Introduction

I was sitting on the steps of a caravan. It was winter and the sun was out. The house we had bought was still a wreck. I was a junior editor at Penguin and Graham had given me the first sixty or so pages of his new novel. I had worked on Graham’s second novel Shuttlecock and we had become friends. This was his third novel. It was to be called Waterland.

Almost at once, from the very opening, from those first few promises of stories and ancestry and mother’s milk, I knew instinctively that I was in the presence of something extra- ordinary, something which, when opened fully, was going to envelop me like a glorious burst of light, changing me and the world I lived in forever. Reading a great book is a discovery of its own. The reader feels an almost limitless thrill, like an archaeologist must when stumbling upon a fabled burial site or the lost skull of civilization. It is as if you have discovered this treasure by yourself, and it is yours and yours alone. You take possession of it, guard it jealously. Sure, that moment will pass. Later you will offer up its secrets to others, allow them to talk of it, handle it with (as far as you are concerned) disturbing familiarity, but for those precious hours and days it belongs to no one else, and you hug it closely, protecting every page. That was how I felt, reading those sixty pages. That is how everyone feels, first reading those sixty pages and beyond. It is yours, made just for you. What is more, to some unfathomable degree, it is your story too, in more ways than you thought possible.

Circumstances changed. By the time Graham had finished the novel, I had moved to become editor of Picador. In those days Picador was solely a paperback house, but happily, partly thanks to our previous relationship, it came about that Waterland would be published by Heinemann in hardcover and a year later in paperback, at Picador. I would edit the novel, along with David Godwin at Heinemann. It was a big book for me. It was a big book for Graham. It’s a big book for everyone who reads it.

This is a personal introduction, because it seems to me that is what Waterland is. A personal book, a book that speaks to the innermost core of the reader, digging into the psyche, asking questions, unearthing feelings, seeding ideas, suspicions, that have laid dormant, as to who you are and where you came from, and why it is that doubt, unease, a sense of unspoken, fearful history, is always there, floating under the surface of the waters of the unknown. In that respect there is a quality to it reserved for the most part to the symphony, an underlying motif, an inference, which travels through the novel almost in a different life form, hovering above it all – a note, a call, which lies beyond what is written, emanating from a place that is at one and the same time familiar and utterly new. Reson- ance. You travel through Waterland on its reverberation.

Waterland is a strange book in that, contrary to accepted wisdom, it lies outside Swift’s usual canon. If one removed Waterland from the body of his work and followed the progres- sion of the other novels, they take on a very particular trajec- tory, his aim (or at least one of them) concentrated on quite a specific target, with clear markers laid out along the way, from The Sweet Shop Owner right through to Wish You Were Here. Swift’s overriding intent, as a writer of prose, is to reduce that prose, the word, the sentence, down to its purest form and thereby to unleash the latent power lying within. Swift becomes, if you like, the novelist’s equivalent of a nuclear physicist, working towards the day when, freed from impurities, he breaks the word down into its seemingly lightest, most weightless form, releasing moments of dazzling, almost limitless energy. Two instances of this spring immediately to mind. The airport scene in The Light of Day – a scene of almost religious intensity – and, more recently, the moment in Wish You Were Here when Major Richards, an army officer and the bearer of bad news, steps out of a car and puts on his cap. That is all he does. He reaches out for his peaked cap resting on the passenger seat, gets out of the car and puts it on, yet in that brief action the weight of the world billows out in shock waves. It is difficult, if not impossible to understand quite how or why. Take the sentences apart, examine them and the power simply slips away, but together, under Swift’s tutelage, the intensity is (to use the word in its correct context) awesome. You stand in awe of it. It takes your breath away.

But if all his other novels have been fashioned by the novelist from Los Alamos, then Waterland has been put together in a more familiar manner, made with more familiar tools, from more familiar elements, and in a more familiar design (albeit an astonishing one). Waterland has the appearance of a magnificent engine, a shining and brilliant marvel of construction. It has its oiled wheels, its cogs, its ratchets, its levers. It breathes power. Once begun, there is no stopping Waterland; every part sets another part in motion. It is a glorious, bravura construct, producing story after story in a seemingly unstoppable flow. Reading it, we are conscious of it all (Waterland like a gleaming Flying Scotsman, perfect and polished, powering over the land), and (in the same vein as up on that railway bank, watch- ing the behemoth pass) we stand in wonder of Waterland’s physical appearance, beguiled by its complexities, thrilled by the rhythm and hum of it as the novel does its work. (Waterland does that other steam-engine thing too – being in its presence makes us feel good, makes us feel part of it. It uplifts.) The people – the passengers – are similarly held in thrall to this powerhouse, working through its influence, serving its purpose, carried by its energy and its working parts, its locks and water- ways, its relentless little pump houses. They, like us, are in its power. But though we are (players and readers alike) conscious of it, this great thing, breathing like a beast, its presence never detracts from its intent, never diverts us from its purpose, why it is there, its reason for delivering its stories and its people with a memorizing fecundity, setting them down and moving them (and us) along. We do not mind how deliberately it lies both outside and inside of us, how its power is experienced both internally and externally; in fact we crave it, and are tied to this Waterland as much as those strapped within. We are all affected, readers and passengers alike, harnessed to the wheel, the piston, to the circumstance, to the sluice gates and the waters as they swirl and surround us and carry us off. Here we have it then – Swift as Brunel, brilliant inventor, master builder, blueprint wizard, plotter and planner, a visionary, a user of all materials, creating this Waterland, this wonder of the age, setting his creation free to steam across Great Britain, then continents and oceans to the wider waiting world.

Waterland. There it is. He made it for you and me. What did he do, this hatless Isambard? What did he create exactly? What is it, this novel? What is it?

Let us start, as the narrator might suggest, at the beginning. Open the first page. Take a look at the blueprint. The Contents. They will give you pause for thought.

The first two entries are 1. About the Stars and the Sluice, followed by an oddly resonant phrase (a phrase which accidentally transports us to an age after the book was written), 2. The End of History. So we have three elements already in the mix. Stars - the heavens (space, distance, time), Sluice, a mechanism for controlling current (storing up, letting go – a novelist’s device if ever there was one), and thirdly, The End of History, an unsettling notion, pointing almost to the end of time itself, or when the earth has no more need of it – when perhaps the stars have gone out). For our third and fourth chapters we are delivered to firmer, more habitable ground: About the Fens and Before the Headmaster (place and character), and with Bruise upon a Bruise following in their wake, we have the other stuff of novels: conflict. Read on. Back and forth it goes, like, dare I say it, a shuttlecock, the book laying its pattern down, weaving its web: About the Story-telling Animal, About the Rise of the Atkinsons, About Accidental Death (note the philosophical plural there), then suddenly, De la R ́evolution, a title in French, and later on – after Lock-keepers and Grandfathers Aux Armes (is that not from the Marseillaise? Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons?) It must be, because after Coronation Ale (back to England and English monarchs complete with heads) comes the Fourteenth of July, again in French, Quatorze Juillet, and following fast, the instruction, despite all that, to Forget the Bastille. This novel, it is clear, will be playing with us, taking us we know not where, from one place to another, dropping us in, whipping us out, past, present, water, land, in, out, up, down, round and round. Yes, forget the Bastille, it’s not about that at all, it’s About the Eel, and About the Saviour of the World, About the East Wind, Contemporary Nightmares, Empire-building. In fact, it’s The Whole Story.

The Whole Story? Is that what it is?

Here you have an inkling, if not a map, of where this novel intends to take you. Everywhere. Waterland is history, it is exploration. Waterland is geography, lineage. It is commerce, decline and fall, the industrial revolution (the French one too, with heads lopped off ) and, like everything around us, it bears the scars of the two great wars of the twentieth century. It is family saga, family secrets, love, licit and otherwise; it is, above all, an exploration into what it is, this history thing, that affects us all, your history, mine, ours. It is saying that we are all part of it, that we are, to use a current phrase, all in it together, that I am connected to you, as you are connected me, though we may not know the how and the when, but there’s a link somewhere, back in time, stuck in the roots, or if not there, floating out there, seeds to the future. We can’t escape it, this web, this history. We’re caught in it. We move along its sticky lines, struggle helplessly in its grip. So where do we begin to make sense of it? How do we begin (the storyteller’s eternal once-upon-a-time question)?

Here then, with Waterland, we have the story as DNA, the novel as gene pool. Which story? His? Hers? How far back? How far forward? Stories and histories, histories and stories, each one fighting for supremacy, Waterland the referee, bringing some semblance of order to the clash between them. ‘The end of History!’ Price the teenager declaims (a theory Fukuyama offered up as his own decades later for a different reason. Price was closer to a possible truth.) No, it’s the beginning of a story, Tom Crick, his history teacher says, just not the story you’re expecting. It’s not King Canute or Robespierre. It’s lock- keepers and mad women, bargemen and brewers, attics and funerals; it’s money and mud, silver and silt, whisky and water, beer and abortions. It’s children, children. It’s children, what they inherit, what they leave behind . . . the stories they tell . . .

But sense. It is possible to make sense? Isn’t the schoolboy Price right? Haven’t we known since 1945 that nothing makes sense anymore? Or is it just that we need help, help to see the sense, if only we could, that unless we hear the stories, listen to them, understand, acknowledge, there can never be any sense, that stories are our only salvation, that we have to string them together to see the shape they make, the shape we are in. Marooned by the insistent voice of self, we stand by the water’s edge, send messages out, hoping that one day someone will hear us, that help will come. Here, our narrator, our history teacher, our storyteller (Tom Crick, of course, sharing the same surname as the Francis Crick who nailed the DNA molecule in ’53. Accident? Design?) stands at the canal’s edge and drops his stories in one by one, hoping that his pupils, his readers, will pick them up as they bob by. They are all one story, naturally, all the same story, just different parts of it stuck in different bottles, and he sends it out, hoping that by writing it down he might make sense of it all too, hoping that help or understanding will come to hand, hoping that he will not go mad in the telling of it. So many things in it to cause madness. The landscape drives people mad. Family life drives people mad. War drives people mad. Sex too. Everything can drive people mad. Madness even. Madness drives people mad. There they are, bottled messages of hope and madness, held in his shaking fingertips, fermenting in a stopper. Except of course that the first bottle, the opening bottle as it were, is an empty one, drained of its (Coronation) ale. The bottle is the message.

And the ale itself – the Coronation Ale – why it transforms people. It (guess what) drives them mad. It wilds the civil breast, sets the mob in it alight. Obscenities are sung, ships run aground, breweries burn down, the whole town leaps about possessed ... the whole town? What about the book? What about Waterland?

Now we have it, now we know why Waterland is what it is. Surely Swift must have drunk a fair quantity of Coronation Ale himself, been overcome by a fierce and unstoppable energy which has him dancing over the centuries, gathering stories like a pied piper, having them run in his wake, jostling for attention. For it is true that this Waterland is aflame, that some- thing has happened to the author of The Sweetshop Owner and Shuttlecock, that he has been seized by something, a force, a force which has risen up from the flat lands of the fens, its water, its marshes, and driven him to the brink of Waterland’s edges . . . Or could it be that nothing is made up, that this is all real, from the drainage to the railway lines and the canal structures, the fires, the deaths, even the body floating in the water? Is that why Waterland strikes such a chord, because it is real, isn’t fiction at all, because Coronation Ale was simply a wonder-brew that transported him back to . . . it’s hard to say exactly when or where? It reads as if true, this Waterland, not simply like a story, but more like a voice, a memory, recalling ... But true or not, it’s the beer what done it ... Or if not the beer, perhaps it’s the wind, the East Wind, another fabled mixer of minds, which like so many subjects in this encyclo- paedic novel has a chapter all of its own. The East Wind.

It seems to me that as a nation we are divided into those who incline to the west coast and those who favour the east. The West is warm, where the Gulf Stream runs, where the winds are wet, where the milder climate lies, where the coast looks out onto vast amounts of empty water. The East is the wind from the Urals and the Russian steppes, cold, unforgiving. The East is the North Sea. The West may have the heat of the sun but the East has its light, the dawn, the dance of time, the beginning. We are a northern race, raised by northern light and northern climes. We are Saxons, Angles, Vikings, Normans. It is from the east that invasion came. It is on, or over, our eastern shores that we have won and lost our battles. Eastern land, eastern seas, invasions and influence and history. So it was no accident (as Melville’s Nantucket was no accident for his journey into the heart of America) that Swift chose the Fens for his journey into the heart of England, the eastern tip. Rid- ing in a railway carriage, travelling over the rolling flat, he thought his mind might lay its seeds on this surface, that here might be a land wet enough to spawn a book which could be host to a whole forest of tales, a land half-real, half-concoction itself, a land made in the minds of men, a mix of mist and matter, where his drifting tales could be drained and chan- nelled and poured into the body of the work ... so that this Waterland, this Fen country, is now a land teeming with untold histories, untold mysteries, a land full of people with songs to tell of who and how they were, their hymns ancient and modern. Forget the Sargasso Sea (forget even the Bastille), there’s enough stuff here. There is always enough stuff here.

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Waterland 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
SusanIL More than 1 year ago
I simply loved this novel and read it in a weekend. A reviewer likened it so Thomas Hardy's novels and so it is. The characters are compelling and the story original weaving world history with local/familial history with past and present and with fairy tale and reality. A wonderfully constructed book -- one that readers will enjoy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I believe that every student of history should read this book. It has given me an urge to search my family history.I was also captivated by the way Swift presented the ' THE GREAT' events in history( the French Revoltion,World War I,World War II,etc), along side his family's personal history....
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Waterland' is a novel that presents a story that runs like the threads of a quilt. Many different threads of fact, myth, tragedy, politics, and merriment, are all combined and intertwined in such a unique way that the reader becomes completely wrapped up in the story, in spite of oneself. Although the story starts slowly, and is difficult to follow as Swift jumps from narrator to narrator, from past to present, I found myself many times, shaking my head, failing to make sense of anything I was reading. I could tell it was all leading somewhere, but once I thought I had sorted through it and figured it out, it threw me off once again with chapters such as the one that details the mating habits of eels. But once I finished the novel, I saw it was much more than a series of mix-matched chapters. I realized that this was a truly great novel, appreciated much more in its entirety than in bits and pieces. The story begins with Tom Crick, a history teacher, being fired. Not only being fired, but his entire department being ended. Once again, it is important to make clear that throughout the novel, the reader is at no point made to feel empathy of any kind for the character's presented. The characters seem to blend into the background of history, the story of the past. In this tale, setting seems to take precedence over characters. Consistency seems to be lacking in the original way in which the story is narrated. Swift seems to take the readers by the hand and guides them along the story, pointing things out like single events, leaving hints, dropping clues. Through clever use of dramatic irony, the reader is led through the 'phlegmatic' land of the Fens. The history of the narrator and his unlucky Atkinson ancestors are shown to follow the circle of history, which is one of the significant points of the story. History, as we define it, is nothing more than a bunch of stories, fairy-tales that once existed. The parallels that Swift makes between his characters and the events of history, the French revolution and the revolutionaries, are key to the story, revolving mostly around one of his students, Price. Price, one of the more secondary characters at first glance, actually becomes the key in triggering Tom's storytelling. Price poses the challenge, why? Why study history if it is all coming to an end? This is the question the novel tackles. The never ending question, why. I could not help but get caught up in Tom's almost desperate attempt to immerse himself in history, to tell the story of a tragic family tree that is indeed earthy, complex, simple, and effective. The effects of incest, dredgers, breweries, politics, love, exploring,and reclaiming are all tied together by means of looking at Tom Crick's past, fears of the future, and problems in the present. Mary, Tom's wife, who kidnaps a baby from the supermarket, is one of the characters that interested me most. I became interested in the way her character interacts with both Tom and his 'brother' Dick, as well as her school girl curiosity that seems to drive her into more trouble than it does understanding. I believe that curiosity is also one of the main themes of the story. Curiosity and the need to know, the need for explanations, is the main argument for the necessity of history. Our desire to know means that we must look at history, and all of its mistakes, and take heed. A troubled family, a family name with a history of cursed luck, special ale, tales of ghosts and superstition, fires and predictions--all are elements of a tale that keeps the reader curious. Although I found myself wanting to put the book down and never pick it up again, frustrated, and a little confused, realized that by accepting the story, and drudging through it, as does its characters, the pay off in the end makes the journey worth while. A crazy Sarah Atkinson, a shady Ernest, hopeful businessmen George and Alfred, poor Helen, Freddie Parr
Guest More than 1 year ago
Graham Swift's Waterland relates Tom Crick's attempt to reclaim his life, or, in his words, 'to make things not seem meaningless'(241). Tom, a history teacher, believes that 'History begins only at the point where things go wrong'(106)and, correspondingly, the novel begins after his life has fallen apart. Very effectively, the novel relates Tom's story, seemingly a fairytale, and proves that asking 'why?' purges fear. Tom teaches his students that history is the result of fear. After Tom has become the victim of one of reality's 'suprise attacks of the Here and Now'(61), whereby he loses his wife to mania and his job because of her actions, he must look to the past and attempt to discover 'Whywhywhy'(107), just as history, 'the record of decline'(140), must try to determine a cause for the present. The question 'why' results from a fear of reality. When confronted with reality, Tom, like his Crick ancestors, begins a story, the fairytale of his life. In attempting to explain, Tom is forced to not only 'reanimate in our imaginations his troubled life and times but even to penetrate the generations before him'(107). Tom realizes that he is looking for a particular point, just as Johannes Schmidt searched for the exact location where eels breed. However, in his effort to fix a zenith, whereby the decline of his life can begin, he comes 'not to an Explanation, but to a knowledge of the limits of [his] power to explain'(108) and just as Schmidt had to settle for an approximate location, Tom relizes that there is no exact moment, or event to blame, but more or less a multitude of factors, which have caused Mary to fall and forced him to follow. Waterland is a brilliant accomplishment by Graham Swift. The novel is fashioned in story-like, fairytale format, where some of the events are almost too horrible to be true, but too real to be fiction. Tom's story, which becomes progressively more real as the novel unfolds, not only entertains, but incites fear and pity in the true Aristotilian tragic format. It causes fear because the events portrayed could happen to anyone and pity because the consequences, which Tom is suffering from, are not entirely his fault. At its conclusion, the novel creates a catharsis for, not only Tom, but the reader as well.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Waterland is one of the great novels of the twentieth century--really, of any century. The timescape is dazzling, the narrator is fascinating, the plot is masterful. You must read this book.
Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An idiosycratic, complex and thought provoking novel about history, progress and primeval instincts of life to exist. Really interesting, but narratated as one, long, protracted story the following of which I found somewhat tedious.
miketroll on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A splendid, almost epic historic tale by a fine writer. Water is in effect the central character in the narrative. Swift charts the progress of generations of Fenland people and their constant struggles against the encroaching sea. Like the Netherlands, the Fenlands of East Anglia demand constant drainage and vigilance against the ever-present threat of flooding. Fenland drainage began back in the 17th century, when it was first undertaken on a large scale by Dutch immigrants. (The word ¿fen¿ is itself cognate with the Dutch ¿veen¿ ¿ low, reedy, marshy ground regularly inundated by the tides.) As in Holland, the work continues to this day.
ehines on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Faulknerian in the sense that it is deeply concerned with the mark history leaves upon us, the degree to which things may be laid out for us by what's happened before.Not Faulknerian in the clarity of its prose. And unfortunately not Faulknerian in creating a sense of community/continuity/meaning-giving context for the story to take place in.Maybe that's partially the point, but without that context, the power of history is so much the less in Waterland compared to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, and the fact that history's big events (someone getting killed or injured in WWI) impact people's lives really isn't revelatory.Maybe the true point of the novel is that the narrator is quite wrong: the problem isn't that history binds us in hidden ways, but that it doesn't really. All we really get from the past is a bunch of circumstances we tend to take for granted and an old chest full of notes we can't read and some powerful intoxicants.
vaellus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Somewhat interesting, but I found the narrator's avuncular charm distinctly uncharming. Another complaint is the water metaphor that started to feel crude and overdone in the first 50 pages already. I expected more from this book, even the writing itself was a disappointment.
theholyllama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A history teacher, Tom Crick, nearing the end of his career abandons the demands of his curriculum, forsaking the French Revolution for the story of his own life and that of his home, the Fens of East Anglia. The events of his childhood and the repurcussions they have in the present day are the core of this novel, but it is made clear that the flat Fens landscape plays just as much a part in the novel as any of the characters, reinforcing the sense of isolation that haunts the lives of Crick and his family and acquaintances.Swift weaves a detailed, multi-layered fictional history of the landscape and those who have shaped it over centuries seamlessly into the intimate dramas of one man. I found the plot took a while to get going but once it did the various nuggests of new information and scandalous developments in the various parallel plot lines meant that this is a serious, literary novel that nevertheless grips you with the intensity of an airport page-turner.Personally I found Swift's style to contain some slightly annoying tics, but once the plot picks up the pace these become less obtrusive.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Waterland by Graham Swift was a book that was difficult for me to see a plot in, because there are so many flashbacks, and memories from the past. The many different subplots all lead to the conclusion of adding a reason why Tom Crick got fired from the school. The setting of the novel, the Fens in East Anglia, it is a dreary place, and adds a sense of something unsettling to the book. I found the back story to Tom getting fired very interesting, but extremely strange at the same time. The actions of the characters are very secretive, but I never felt bad for any of them because they were a part of the history, and past. As a high school student the book was fairly challenging in that there wasn't a major event that I was able to focus the book on, but many small ones. 
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