Waterland (novel)

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This article is about the book by Graham Swift. For other uses, see Waterland (disambiguation).
First edition
Author Graham Swift
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher William Heinemann
Publication date
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 310 pp
ISBN 0-434-75330-0
OCLC 10052188
823/.914 19
LC Class PR6069.W47 W3 1983b

Waterland is a 1983 novel by Graham Swift. It is considered to be the author's premier novel and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (a prize Swift finally achieved with Last Orders).

In 1992, the book was made into a film.

Plot introduction[edit]

The title of the novel refers to its setting in The Fens in East Anglia. Waterland is concerned with the nature and importance of history as the primary source of meaning in a narrative. For this reason, it is associated with new historicism. Major themes in the novel include storytelling and history, exploring how the past leads to future consequences.

The plot of the novel revolves around loosely interwoven themes and narrative, including the jealousy of his brother for the narrator's girlfriend/wife, a resulting murder, the abortion the girl undergoes, her subsequent inability to conceive, resulting in depression and the kidnap of a baby.

This personal narrative is set in the context of a wider history, of the narrator's family, the Fens in general and the eel.

Plot summary[edit]

Tom Crick, fifty-two years old, has been history master for some thirty years in a secondary school in Greenwich, in a sense the place where, in a world that sets its clocks according to Greenwich Mean Time, time begins. Tom has been married to Mary for as long as he has been teaching, but the couple have no children.

The students in Tom's school have grown increasingly scientifically oriented, and the headmaster, a physicist, has little sympathy for Tom's subject. One of Tom's students, Price, questions the relevance of learning about historical events. The youth's scepticism causes Tom to change his teaching approach to telling tales drawn from his own recollection. By doing so, he makes himself a part of the history he is teaching, relating his tales to local history and genealogy. The headmaster, Lewis, tries to entice Tom into taking an early retirement. Tom resists because his leaving would mean that the History Department would cease to exist and be combined with the broader area of General Studies.

Tom's wife is arrested for snatching a baby. The publicity that attends her arrest reflects badly on the school, and Tom is told that he now must retire. Tom uses his impending forced retirement as an excuse to unfold a story to his students. The bulk of Waterland is devoted to this story that, before it is done, covers some three hundred years of local history and relates it to the broader historical currents of those centuries. The primary plot of the story has to do with Tom's relationship to Mary both before and after their marriage. She is reared on a farm close to where Tom's father, a lock-keeper, lives with his two sons in the lock-keeper's cottage, beside a tributary of the Great Ouse. Tom's mother dies when he is eight years old. Mary is also reared by her father because her mother died giving birth to her. He sees that his daughter receives a strict religious upbringing. As Mary matures, her interest in men grows, and she and Tom slip into an affair and she discovers that she is pregnant. Tom's brother Dick asks Mary if he is the father of the child. Mary lies to him, telling him that Freddie Parr is the father. Dick, distraught at this information, struggles with the drunken Freddie, who cannot swim, and pushes him into the river. It is Tom's father who pulls Freddie from the sluice, not realising that his drowning is anything but accidental, as the coroner's inquest finally finds. Mary tries to provoke a miscarriage but fails, so she and Tom, the father of the child, go to an old crone, who performs an abortion that leaves Mary sterile. Her father forces her into seclusion, and for three years she remains isolated. Finally the two fathers agree to bring their children together again; unknown to them, Tom, away fighting in World War II, has already written to Mary. When he comes home, the two marry, and Tom begins his teaching career while Mary takes a position in an old persons’ home. Finally, she steals a baby and explains the new arrival to Tom by saying that it is a gift from God. Obviously disturbed and suffering from a pain that has been festering since her teenage abortion, Mary is arrested.

A secondary plot involves Tom's mother's family, the Atkinsons, who have run a brewery for several generations. This subplot is interwoven into the development and resolution of the primary plot.

Film adaptation[edit]

In 1992, a film version of Waterland was released, directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal and starring Jeremy Irons. The adaptation retained some major plot points but moved the contemporary location to Pittsburgh, and eliminated many of the extensive historical asides.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bentley, Nick. "Graham Swift, Waterland". In Contemporary British Fiction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 131–40. ISBN 978-0-7486-2420-1.

External links[edit]