“Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more houses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid, the Sheringhams had owned not just four horses in their own stable, but what might be termed a ‘real horse’, a racehorse, a thoroughbred.”
I HAD not intended to review this until Jon Snow chose it as his Good Read for BBC Radio 4, so perhaps there is room for an alternative view. Balance, as the BBC is always saying. I admire the tight precision of Graham Swift’s writing, and the format here with a cover of a striking detail from Modigliani’s Reclining Nude all augur well, 129 pages with lots of white space beckon as an easy read. The Guardian and the Independent both rated this as Swift’s best book yet, a polite cliché when reviewers do not really know what to say but feel obliged to flatter. I don’t agree (and I would not mind reading back through his other dozen books to make my case. I have fond memories of Last Orders, for example).
The first part is shimmeringly brilliant as the opening 62 word sentence illustrates well enough. The hinge being that Mother’s Day is the loneliest day of all for an orphan. It is calm, in tune with its 1920s era, erotic, beautiful even. But then we have a plot cliché like Swift has got fed up with his characters and mentally said oh sod it, I want to write about something else instead. A schism appears. Part two is another book, which if it were a true story would be amazing, but it is not, as far as I am aware, so it peters out as so much well, nonsense. Events and characters of part one have no bearing on part two. For me this is a cardinal sin for the story teller, editors and publishers who acquiesce and why writers like Ferrante and Rowling and even crime writers who stick to their vision succeed.
A disappointment as large as the opening is a pleasure.
On the same show Trevor McDonald upped the stakes with the challenging 1,232 pages albeit important Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Volume 3) by Robert A Caro which highlights the strange historical conundrum of Johnson being both architect and overlord of the Vietnam war and the Texan who stood up for civil rights legislation which indirectly led to Barak Obama’s presidency.