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Book Review

England And Other Stories by Graham Swift

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Publisher: Simon & Schuster, paperback

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The 25 stories in Swift's new collection examine England and the people who live there from quirky angles, tales that mostly engage completely in short sprints.

Although he has published stories before, Graham Swift (born 1949) is better known as a novelist. He won the Booker Prize for Last Orders and the Guardian Fiction Prize for Waterland. Both of these novels were adapted as successful films, the former starring Michael Caine. 

In As Much Love As Possible, two married men, Alec and Bill - long-time friends - meet up at Alec’s house to drink a bottle of 15-year old Scotch and enjoy the shepherd’s pie, which Alec’s wife Sue has cooked for both.

Looking radiant in readiness for a girl’s night out, Sue gets the short lift to the restaurant venue from Bill, while Alec stays at home, the twins sleeping upstairs. Something significant occurs on that brief journey to the eatery. It's a story so potent with possibility that you almost feel the masterful Graham Swift is throwing away  material for a novel.

The best of his stories can leave you suddenly hanging, cut off, asking for more, stories like Half A Loaf, in which a widowed man senses his late wife’s sanction for his relationship with a young woman, more than half his age.

Swift has a sure, even-handed ability to bring us up close to his characters, through simple sentences and sharp dialogue.The sudden, dramatic turns in some of these short tales are masterfully set up. Some of the stories, however, are not so strong, they lack a certain vibrancy.

The story Haematology is set in the aftermath of the English Civil War, as Oliver Cromwell settles into governance with the Rump Parliament, having signed the death warrant of Charles 1. A former surgeon to the king writes to his friend, a lawyer on the rebels’ side. He makes, as best he can, a defence for the king as one who encouraged medical research, while readily acknowledging  that he was “tyrant, traitor and murderer.”

Not by any means the stongest story collected here, Haematology yet shows that Swift can write about other Englands than the contemporary one.

So, will readers prefer his modern-day scenarios - which tend to be crisp and vivid - to his historical settings herein? A good question.

There is often something luminous and clear-eyed about Swift 's narratives, and when he is good he invigorates with gentle guile and makes prose exciting. 

Paddy Kehoe

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