Picks and Pans Review: Waterland

UPDATED 05/21/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/21/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Graham Swift

A history teacher at a British boys' school is about to be retired early because his wife has created a scandal. He begins to tell his students the history of his ancestors, the stories of his life. These strange, rambling accounts combine to make a marvelous novel. The Fens, the setting for these stories, are low-lying regions of eastern England, reclaimed land that was once water. "To live in the Fens is to receive strong doses of reality.... Heavy drinking, madness and sudden acts of violence are not uncommon.... How do you acquire, in a flat country, the tonic of elevated feelings?" So the teacher recalls a murder that has been concealed for 40 years, and he tells of earthy women, women who die in childbirth, women who go mad and become saints. This is a novel in which the prose is as powerful as poetry. The image of water—as an unending force—figures throughout, especially in the family malady, a choking phlegm that is much like drowning. The author, who lives in London, has written two novels before this one. His writing is imaginative, glowing, unforgettable. (Poseidon, $15.95)

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