Monday, May 17, 2010


I've never been to Norfolk but it's a place that literature has taken me to, twice. Firstly, in Ishiguro's heartbreaking Never Let Me Go (that's not a flippant assessment, it's one of the saddest books I've ever read (but don't let that put you off, it's stunning)), and recently in Graham Swift's Waterland. Norfolk it seems, is a sad land. Flat, barren, wet, cold and wild, and full of tragedy.

Waterland, set across a span of history from the 1800s, through to the 1980s, is an amazing book that deals with themes covering the family, childhood, work and love, and perhaps most grandly of all, the idea of history itself. Swift tells a tale interlinked by the history of the fens of Norfolk his forebears rise to prominence through land reclamation and ale brewing, his protagonist's childhood spent living with his father and mentally ill brother, and the repercussions the events of this time come to have on his later life, when he teaches history in the fear-of-nuclear-Armageddon obsessed world of the 1980s.

Swift was shorted listed for the Booker for this novel, but lost out to J. M. Coetzee Life & Times of Michael K. He subsequently did win with Last Orders in 1996 though, which was made into a film with Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren and Michael Caine.

There's a film of Waterland too, made in 1992 and set in Pittsburgh (with flashbacks to Norfolk – phew). Reviews don't seem stunning but I would be intrigued to see if the film could in anyway capture the book's crushing sense of despair and futility that creeps along in the background, interspersed by moments of halcyon days of childhood, however fleeting they may be, before its gut-wrenching ending.

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