England and Other Stories by Graham Swift
England and Other Stories is accomplished, individual, and could even be called refreshing: it’s a written-to-purpose collection, not a cobbled-together book of stories from magazines, and Swift is a quiet voice in a generation of noisy writers – Amis, Rushdie, McEwan – who don’t trouble much with short stories these days. But, frustratingly, something’s missing, and it’s frustratingly hard to say what it is.
In his novels Swift delves deeply into what, on the surface, appear to be normal lives. The plot of 1983’s Waterland peels back the layers of a South London teacher’s early life in a circuitous, non-linear fashion taking in murder, witchcraft and a biological dissertation on eels. Booker-winner Last Orders probes the interlocking back-stories of a group of World War Two veterans in narrative that yokes together As I Lay Dying and the Canterbury Tales.
Big canvasses suit this big material, and these are great novels, but it’s harder to get such novelistic sweep in less than 20 pages. None of the 25 stories in this book pulls it off.
Which isn’t to say the stories are bad or boring. Some are pretty heart-rending – like Fusilli, in which a father learns of the death of his son in Afghanistan while shopping, and returns later to buy the same bag of pasta he was holding while on the phone, just to keep. Such private rituals and totemic objects crop up throughout the book – a husband’s shirt kept unwashed in his absence in Was She the Only One, an undelivered love letter in Remember This – but, as with the pasta, they’re left too much to speak for themselves, lacking the (slight) authorial nudge necessary to invest them with their proper potency: “The truth is he could neither keep, nor deliver, nor destroy, nor even resume the letter. It was simply there.”
And so a lot of these stories are simply there. It’s to be expected that Swift would cut out some of the richness of incident that makes his novels go when working in the shorter form, but it feels like he’s cut too deeply. A well-rounded extract from either of the above books, or certain others among his backlist, would show up most of the stories in this book.
England and Other Stories is published by Simon & Schuster at the hardback price of £16.99. For further information visit here.