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Waterland (1983) - Graham Swift

 


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I think that it's a given that we are the sum of our own experiences. But, of course, we are also dependent to some degree on our parents’ experiences, without which we would not have gotten our start in life, and by which we are heavily influenced in our early years. And thus they were dependent upon their parents’ experiences, and, consequently, so are we. Also, we are the sum of our parent's genes, and they of their parents’ genes, and so on, ad infinitum. And so, if all the above is true, then at birth a great deal of who we are has already been decided; who we will be, what we will do, what we are capable of. Them we must be more than just a sentient individual; we are part of, and are the sum of, something much greater. Graham Swift uses this concept to explain to us how the first appearance of pre-historic man in the Fens on the east coast of England will eventually lead to a middle-aged man, a retiring history teacher, the husband of a baby snatcher, how it will eventually lead to him addressing, one final time, his beloved pupils.

And so it begins - ‘And don't forget, ’ my father would say, as if he expected me at any moment to up and leave to seek my fortune in the wide world, ‘whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother's milk. . . ’ - at the end, looking back. Tom Crick, history teacher, storyteller, Fenlander, narrates us through the story of his life, and his parents’ lives, and their parents’ lives, and. . . Epic, thoroughly detailed, masterful, compelling, brilliant; we are gripped from that baby's first nibble. He paints a picture of this flat, desperate place - the Fens - of growing up, of adolescent *** curiosity, of jealousy of murder, of incest. And further back he goes, to the dawn of time, and back again; back and forth, forth and back. He dips in and out of his life, and his ancestors’ lives, contrasting the phlegmatic ambitionless Cricks with the ceaseless aspirations of the Atkinsons. And then they meet, two contrasting families, and he is begotten.

One might argue that we didn't really need to know about the quest to discover the mating habits of the common Eel, but it all finally makes sense. It all manages to nit together. It finally makes sense that a middle-aged retiring history teacher, a man who's life has completely fallen apart, a man who has been undone by his experiences and his genes, and his ancestors’ experiences and genes, that this broken man would stand up in front of a hall full of children and his fellow teachers and speak of the French revolution and the end of the world; that silt, and sluice gates, and strong ales, and fires, and elections, and wars, and God, that all these things and many more would indicate the relevance and importance of history. A masterpiece.

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