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Posts Tagged ‘East Anglia’

Library of Babel: Waterland

Thursday, January 28, 2010 @ 12:01 PM  posted by Mark

Graham Swift’s Waterland brilliantly chronicles the mid-life crisis of high school history teacher Tom Crick, who makes sense of his life by placing his difficulties in the context of the lessons he teaches about the French Revolution. What are his difficulties? His wife has gone mad and kidnapped a stranger’s baby from a supermarket, which lands her in a psychiatric hospital; his school is cutting its History Department, forcing Tom into early retirement; and his students, led by the rebellious teenager Price, are becoming increasingly difficult to control, since they know that History will no longer be required as a separate course and Mr. Crick no longer has the power to discipline them. In response, Crick throws out the textbook and, in place of standard European history lessons, tells the children intimate stories of his own life, in part to show them how personal and national histories can influence each other, and in part as a way to make sense of his life to himself. Crick’s history lessons begin to swerve into personal therapy encounters, as he reveals details of the rise and fall of his family’s brewery, his childhood exploits in the fenland of East Anglia, and the development of his wife’s madness.

The resulting narrative blends European history with racy personal confessions, jumps back and forth in time to tell a family saga spanning 250 years, and draws connections between global politics and individual motivations, placing Tom Crick and his students at the center of a vast sweep of uncontrollable events.

The wit and energy of the writing, line by line, carry the reader from the most lovingly detailed scenes to the most abstract philosophical ruminations. The complexity of Waterland‘s narrative arc, the subtlety of its emotions and the mystery at its heart make it great. It is not a flawless book—its ending is unsatisfying—but it is a novel of great beauty, intellect and heart.

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