26 May 2008
Some way beyond a third of the way through, and I can’t say I’m very bothered about any of it yet. There are two Literary Things going on. First, it’s being narrated by a middle-aged woman, speaking – but only in her head – to her twin son and daughter. They’re asleep in another part of the house, her husband’s asleep by her side, and all’s well. Except for Thing No. 2: she and her husband have waited until after the twins’ 16th birthday to tell them something so important it’s going to change all their lives. And guess what: the big unveiling is tomorrow – and in her silent storytelling she hasn’t told the twins what the secret is yet. So we don’t know either.
It feels like a trick to keep us reading. Early in I was tempted to guess: they’re not their real children, or not their father’s, or… something else. But as time has gone on I’m feeling less interested in that – and less interested in this marriage of Mr and Mrs Success story. The mother goes through the tale of their idyllic relationship, starting with an idyllic first night of real sex and real love – Reader, at the same time –followed by an idyllic day on Brighton beach… and carrying on like that. I’m disappointed that Swift appears to be resorting to that McEwanesque world of over-achievers in their big houses.
Ok, there’s the McGuffin of the Big Secret: maybe that’ll blow it all out of the water – as, at times, the mother appears to suggest. Or maybe the picture of mutual love and respect she is offering up is false: either she’s simply lying, or her version of the idyll is simply wrong. Either way, I wish Swift would hurry up. The history of these nicely brought-up Home Counties characters just isn’t interesting enough.
Just past the half-way point, I’m still not bothered. We’ve found out that the husband’s sperm-count was discovered to be terribly low, that her father died, that they got a cat. Which disappeared. Everything’s explained in that sensible, understanding way that middle-class parents have when talking to their kids. And we still don’t know what the big story is. Did the uber-faithful Paula sleep with somebody else to get pregnant? Did they get sperm from a sperm-bank? Was enough useful material somehow got out of hubby’s underproductive sperm-factories to set the nine-month clock ticking? Don’t ask me, nobody tells me anything.
I’m still holding out some hope that the narrator is embroidering the truth, that the garden of marital delights she describes is actually a fiction to be exploded in the second half of the novel. She hasn’t got much more to tell in this section: in her more or less chronological tale she’s reached a time not long before the twins’ conception. And surely it’ll soon be time for her to get up: she’s been talking all night.
If I had another audiobook I’d give this one up. Just as in Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor, which I finished reading a week or so ago, the expected literary coups simply haven’t happened. Everything we’d guessed is true, the narrator’s picture of the married idyll is true, the success of their lives is true…. When I said some chapters back that this bit had run as far as it could I’d forgotten the insufferable way the middle classes can go on – and on – about their fucking feelings. There are agonies, there is guilt – and there are little family or individual mythologies, as in ‘If it wasn’t for Otis [the cat which, unexpectedly and triumphantly, did come back] you might not be here.’ As in, nicknames they tried out for the sperm donor, like some people give nicknames to cars. (Mr Sperm, or Mr S, in case you were wondering.) And the kids are still her angels and darlings, and she still often refers to her husband as Professor Mikey…. Hmmm. Is that it? Is it her language I hate – as much as the smug descriptions of the lifestyle? Yes, it is. And it makes you wonder why Graham Swift, one of the best writers we’ve got, would hobble himself like this.
So anyway. The children were conceived using sperm from a donor and they need to be told the truth, end of story. You wish.
Chapter 25 to the end
Finished, thank God, although I don’t know why I bothered. A few chapters from the end I hoped my earlier guess about an unreliable narrator might turn out to be true… that the twins, like the golden-haired son in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, were imaginary, or – or anything at all. Just not, please, this perfect family in which there’s this one little blip. Ok, according to Paula, not little at all. But, shit, she writes about the way Mike isn’t playing in the same gene-pool as though he’s an alien. She tries to convince herself that he’s their father in every other conceivable (wrong word) respect: he cried at their birth, he was always the perfect father to both of them, he saved their lives when they might have drowned. That last little episode was one of the things that she must be making up – as if parents like them would let their nine-year-olds out of their sight on a beach for a second – but no…. And what’s it all about in the end? A parent who isn’t your birth-parent is still your parent? Fine. But a) it’s not such a shocking thing that it needs to be deferred in the telling for over 100 pages and b) it’s not enough for a whole novel. Honestly, a short story would cover it.
Shall I shut up about it? Or should I mention other annoying things? Like the weather, which always fits the mood. (If it’s just the golden haze of Paula’s memory making it so then Swift needs to hold that fact up to a bit of scrutiny. But, I’m afraid, it isn’t. So he doesn’t.)
I’ll shut up about it.