Go deep below the surface of any person, and you will find Swift’s narrator, George Webb, a man for whom the normal movements of life have become odd, and replaced by a kind of quiet obsession – love perhaps, or maybe a kind of metamorphosis, evocative primarily for its own sake. Superficially, if there is such a thing in Graham Swift’s work, the story follows a day in the life of George, a former policeman turned detective, turned paramour to a woman serving a life sentence. The novel is full of the most exquisite contradiction, which form its meaning through incongruity.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Light of Day
by Graham Swift
256pp, Hamish Hamilton, A$35.00
“Something happens. ‘Something comes over us.’ we say.” This is the violet hour in which the real action of Graham Swift’s latest novel, The Light of Day, plays out. It is the nether region of tragedy, of change, where life suddenly becomes something entirely different from what we always imagined it to be. Go deep below the surface of any person, and you will find Swift’s narrator, George Webb, a man for whom the normal movements of life have become odd, and replaced by a kind of quiet obsession – love perhaps, or maybe a kind of metamorphosis, evocative primarily for its own sake. Superficially, if there is such a thing in Graham Swift’s work, the story follows a day in the life of George, a former policeman turned detective, turned paramour to a woman serving a life sentence. The novel is full of the most exquisite contradiction, which form its meaning through incongruity.
The novel reads as quickly as a murder mystery, whose high suspense “whodunnit” propels the reader forward. We already know who done it though, although we aren’t quite sure why, or why it concerns George, or most importantly, the meaning of the act and why it concerns us. These are the revelations which move the story along, with almost as much breathlessness as a plot based narrative. The effect however is much more powerful. In the ‘present,’ George is visiting Sarah Nash in prison on the second anniversary of her murder of husband Robert. George leaves his detective agency, buys flowers at the shop across the street, visits Nash’s grave, leaves the flowers, and then visits Sarah in prison. That’s it. The narrative is also contained by the small terrain, Putney Vale, Christlehurst, Wimbledon. The detective agency, the florist, the cemetery. But the day is expertly shot through with a range of flashbacks, from George’s childhood, his expulsion from the police force, his marriage breakdown, his relationship with his daughter, and his taking on of the Nash case, woven so lightly into the stream of consciousness narrative as George moves about his business, that the story becomes a much broader mosaic.
This revelation of George’s backstory follows the terse structure of a mystery, and the Nash’s murder coupled with a smoky, almost cartoon like detective setting is a little trick. The reader feels like he or she is reading a mystery, but the real mystery is not who killed Robert Nash. Nor is it even how, or why he was killed. The mystery is George. In his minute observations, he is a detective trying to find out who he is, at base. Stripped of his role of policeman, and stripped of his family, he is the classic “down-on-his-luck” detective, staying aloof, until he meets Sarah Nash, and crosses the line. The book is full of contradiction. George is a tough, relatively cold womaniser who ignores the “rules” – sleeps with his clients and his assistant, but is capable of love at first sight, and soft sentiment:
And whether he’s up there or not, and whether he’s got a net, I don’t know. But I think it’s how it ought to be just among us. There ought to be at least one other person who won’t let us slip through their net. No matter what we do, no matter what we’ve done. It’s not a question of right or wrong. It’s not a question of justice.(36)
The narrative itself is sparse, with short, clean, even clipped sentences, but it is also strangely rich in metaphor and linguistic power:
The screws stand around, keeping an eye. It’s not a playground (despite the kids) but it’s a kind of school. Here you have to learn. And here – she explained it more than once, though any fool might guess – it’s not so much what you have to live without but what you have to live with. More words that you have to take seriously, big wordy words that used to be just words in the dictionary or like words in someone else’s language. But now (I feel their weight too), they’re as real as rocks.
‘Remorse’, for example.
Today, of all days, they’re real. (46)
Another technique used by Swift, is the almost fugual, Joycean use of the returning detail. Early on a single thread will appear, and will be picked up on much later. This occurs throughout the book, as the reader is reminded of specific words, specific characters, and specific discussions. For example, on the first page, George imagines Rita leaving him: “She’ll say ‘George’ in a way that will make me have to look up, and after a bit I’ll have to say, “Sit down, Rita, for God’s sake,’ and she’ll sit facing me like a client.” Later towards the end of the book, George is really telling Rita to sit down. There are many recurring details, from Rita’s pink bathrobe, Robert Nash’s profession as a gynacologist, the flowers, a cup of coffee brought by Rita, the smell in Sarah Nash’s kitchen of the Coq Au Vin, the goodbye scene between Nash and his lover Kristina, the Empress Eugenie, Chistlehurst, surburbia, a park bench, George’s father on a golf course. These repeating visual images work poetically, building up richness out of the simplicity. We know the outcome, but the repetition of the sensual evocative scenes, each time revealing something more, builds the tension. In between the reflection, and the memories, is the forward motion of the day:
I turn on to the slip road and put my foot down. I’m on my way now, I’m on my way. I whizz out on to the A3.
Time is circular, but also linear. It’s an illusion, but utterly real. Robert was murdered, but he was already dead, walking into the knife deliberately. This is a black and white, almost cinematic story, but nothing is black and white. One suspects that there isn’t really a “light of day” to this story. If Sarah gets out of prison at all, she can never really become the happy housewife “sweetheart” cooking Coq Au Vin for George. It is possibly the very suspended nature of her existence that he has fallen in love with, rather than a specific person. His love is based on these fleeting images, the scent of her cooking, the depth of her pain, the backs of her knees. In the end, there is a sense of fatalism in this story – a propulsion of these characters into their inevitable fates:
Choice? It’s in the blood. It’s what I do, I am. It’s what we all do, I think in our different ways. Something in the blood, in the nose. Under the chestnut tree, the sticky breath of summer rain. We’re hunters, that’s what we are, always stalking, tracking the missing thing, the missing part of our lives.” (105)
The Light of Day is a book that reads quickly, and pleasurably, while insinuating itself below the skin of the reader.
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