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England and Other Stories


England and Other Stories

In a productive literary career that has earned him one Booker Prize (LAST ORDERS) and a spot on the Booker shortlist for another (WATERLAND), short stories have been noticeably absent from the output of English writer Graham Swift. His first collection, LEARNING TO SWIM, was published in 1982, and so it has taken him more than three decades to assemble the 25 previously unpublished stories that appear in ENGLAND AND OTHER STORIES. The good news is that the wait has been worth it. Swift delivers a masterly collection that is noteworthy both for the quality of its storytelling and the gemlike polish of its prose.

In a recent interview, Swift explained that his decision to abandon the short story wasn't a conscious one. "Each time I finished a novel I'd think: Wouldn't it be good to spend some time writing stories again. But, with one or two isolated exceptions, the stories just didn't happen --- until very recently," he explained. The difference, in the case of ENGLAND AND OTHER STORIES, was his feeling that "as the stories kept coming, that they were contributing to some single whole, indeed a single book."

"Swift delivers a masterly collection that is noteworthy both for the quality of its storytelling and the gemlike polish of its prose."

Distinctive in both voice and characterization, collectively these stories provide a portrait of England, through its people, as vivid as any one might gain from traveling there. Doctors, lawyers and professors share the stage with barbers, warehouse workers and pensioners. There are tales of first love, married love and loss, and ones that feature a body encountered by an elderly man on a walk in the woods, a young man's startling sexual initiation, and an episode of infidelity that comes about in circumstances that can be described only as unique. Swift's stories are small gems of compression. The longest spans barely 15 pages, while half never make it to 10. Whether he's narrating in first or third person, he demonstrates a consistent talent for quick brushstrokes of characterization that's essential when crafting stories of such modest length.

A few examples must suffice. In "People Are Life," the garrulous barber-narrator dispenses bits of wisdom like the story's title to customers who want "a little philosophy" with their haircut. "Remember This" is the touching story of a newlywed's effort to write a love letter to his bride, stymied by the fact that "the essence of love letters was that they were about separation." The lightly comic "Holly and Polly" features two young women --- one English, one Irish --- who make an improbable discovery when they meet in the fertility clinic where they both work. The story of a long-buried family secret in "Yorkshire" and of an elderly classics professor's regret over a childhood incident involving a neighbor in "Ajax" are among the most emotionally affecting stories in the collection.

Swift displays his gift for immersing the reader in a story from the first lines in "I Live Alone," where a lawyer who had just been informed he suffers from a terminal illness realizes that his life "was no longer the indefinite thing of which he'd always been the subject, it was a closed thing, a finite thing, an object." And in "Dog," he pulls off a startling reversal as a middle-aged father's placid walk with his infant daughter in the park, "the very image of communal well-being," is interrupted by a terrifying incident.

Even in the strongest story collection, there are entries that don't measure up to the quality of their peers. That's true of "Mrs. Kaminski," a dialogue-only story of barely four pages, featuring an elderly woman whose dementia manifests itself in the repetition of the phrase "going to Poland" as her code phrase for death. Another less impressive effort is "Articles of War," the brief account of a young naval officer in 1805 who is about to set sail and senses he may experience combat for the first time, while "Tragedy, Tragedy" is little more than an extended setup for a concluding ironic twist.  

Though it's distinctive in its own right, the title story, coming at the end, is a fitting summing up of this variegated portrayal of the English people. In it, a coastguard named Kenneth Black encounters a touring black comedian named Johnny Dewhurst, whose car is stuck in a ditch before dawn on a country road in Somerset. The two men have nothing in common, and after Kenneth helps Johnny extricate his car, he ponders whether to share the story of this inexplicable meeting with his wife:

"How to begin, how to be believed? How to convey every important detail? It was a story he didn't have the power of telling. So better not to tell it. It was one of those stories you didn't tell. He wondered, already, if he believed it himself."

Fortunately for us, Graham Swift doesn't suffer from any such lack of confidence. He's a gifted storyteller whose talent is revealed on nearly every page of this outstanding collection.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on May 29, 2015

England and Other Stories
by Graham Swift

  • Publication Date: April 19, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1101872381
  • ISBN-13: 9781101872383