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Set in the bleak Fen Country of East Anglia, and spanning some 240 years in the lives of its haunted narrator and his ancestors, Waterland is a book that takes in eels and incest, ale-making and madness, the heartless sweep of history and a family romance as tormented as any in Greek tragedy.


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Set in the bleak Fen Country of East Anglia, and spanning some 240 years in the lives of its haunted narrator and his ancestors, Waterland is a book that takes in eels and incest, ale-making and madness, the heartless sweep of history and a family romance as tormented as any in Greek tragedy.

30 review for Waterland

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

    Waterland, published in 1983, is a semi-postmodern examination of the end of History, the trajectory of the promise of the Enlightenment. It is set in the 80's, but looks backwards through history, centering around 1943. It has three different plots: in the 40's, when the narrator Tom is a teenager, it tells of the death of another teenage boy and of the consequences of fooling around with curious Catholic schoolgirls (it sort of screams "DON'T HAVE PREMARITAL SEX! PREMARITAL SEX HAS HORRIBLE PH Waterland, published in 1983, is a semi-postmodern examination of the end of History, the trajectory of the promise of the Enlightenment. It is set in the 80's, but looks backwards through history, centering around 1943. It has three different plots: in the 40's, when the narrator Tom is a teenager, it tells of the death of another teenage boy and of the consequences of fooling around with curious Catholic schoolgirls (it sort of screams "DON'T HAVE PREMARITAL SEX! PREMARITAL SEX HAS HORRIBLE PHYSICAL, EMOTIONAL, AND SUPERNATURAL CONSEQUENCES!"); Tom as an adult, and his wife's mental collapse and crime, and Tom's subsequent forced retirement from the school where he is a history teacher; and the history of his family, beginning centuries ago. Between the two branches of his family, there's a great deal of playing with Freud's concepts of melancholia and mourning - melancholia, the inability to let go of something and move on, being stuck in the past, refusing to move forward with the future, leading to your eventual demise; and mourning being the state of moving on, of grieving and then getting over it. Tom's family has one branch on each side. And then it goes into History versus history (the big overarching world History, versus your own history, and how much you're ever a part of History), and the collapse of linear time, and the fact that although Time, God, and H(h)istory are possibly arbitrary and fictional, we still need them. Then the incest starts. Also some philosophizing about eels. I'm not kidding. This book gets a little ridiculous. It's a semi-Postmodern text examining the difficulty of writing Realism in a Postmodern era, but it goes off on romantic (not Romantic) tangents about natural history and cultural history and all, in a very Julian Barnes (A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters) way. Then it goes into creepy, Stephen King-esque scenes with the children exploring the two great draws in life: sex and death. (The only constants, heh.) I ended up wishing either Stephen King or Julian Barnes had written it, and focused on it - as it is, the tension is uneasy, and yet uneasy in a way that really contributes to the novel and its aims. Although I do love how the idea of storytelling is played with in this novel: the idea that we can't bear reality without the stories we create to endow it with meaning, because otherwise reality is too strong, too harsh, and will overpower us. But again, that's very Barnes. There is a beautiful passage, though, which I'll include here: Once upon a time people believed in the end of the world. Look in the old books: see how many times and on how many pretexts the end of the world has been prophesied and foreseen, calculated and imagined. But that, of course, was superstition. The world grew up. It didn't end. People threw off superstition as they threw off their parents. They said, Don't believe that old mumbo-jumbo. You can change the world, you can make it better. The heavens won't fall. it was true. For a little while - it didn't start so long ago, only a few generations ago - the world went through its revolutionary, progressive phase, and the world believed it would never end, it would go on getting better. But then the end of the world came back again, not as an idea or a belief but as something the world had fashioned for itself all the time it was growing up. Which only goes to show that if the end of the world didn't exist it would be necessary to invent it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    This may be one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read. A lot of my favorite books, some of which I enjoyed even more than this one, have some combination of good plots, good themes, or good characters, but the quality of the writing leaves something to be desired. This is one of those novels that is so expertly crafted that it makes you remember what great writing is. The premise of a history teacher who is about to involuntarily retire due to the principal's decision to eliminate This may be one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read. A lot of my favorite books, some of which I enjoyed even more than this one, have some combination of good plots, good themes, or good characters, but the quality of the writing leaves something to be desired. This is one of those novels that is so expertly crafted that it makes you remember what great writing is. The premise of a history teacher who is about to involuntarily retire due to the principal's decision to eliminate the history program makes it plausible that the narration is the main character's last lectures to his class. It gets extremely personal, and at times inappropriate for a class lecture, but because he no longer has anything to lose, Tom Crick speaks uncensored, ultimately teaching the class not only his personal history, some of which is pretty grizzly, but also how history is valuable because it is a part of everyone. Every life has become and will become a part of history. Because of the style of narration, it is almost a stream of consciousness. You get the feeling that his words are almost floating out of him of their own will, and that he just lets it happen. As a result, the stories of his life jump around rather than happening chronologically. One moment he'll be talking about his brother and him during the war, then he'll jump to the history of his family in the 18th century, then to his own marriage, and then back and forth again. It can get a little confusing at times because he never tells you which part of his life he is returning to; the reader just has to have patience and then it will be revealed. In short, I recommend this book to anyone who is craving writing as art.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Chrissie

    This is a story about a history teacher, Tom Crick. He is in his fifties and lives in Greenwich, England, known for its observatory, Greenwich Mean Time and 0° longitude. You might say it is where time starts, or at least the place by which other times are set. This is a book about the importance of history, both world history and personal history. History hinges upon what came before, in time. Tom is the narrator of the story. He starts in the present, the 1980s. He is being forced into retireme This is a story about a history teacher, Tom Crick. He is in his fifties and lives in Greenwich, England, known for its observatory, Greenwich Mean Time and 0° longitude. You might say it is where time starts, or at least the place by which other times are set. This is a book about the importance of history, both world history and personal history. History hinges upon what came before, in time. Tom is the narrator of the story. He starts in the present, the 1980s. He is being forced into retirement. Why? Decreased funding or something else? Instead of delivering dry lectures he decides to tell of his own ancestors, his years as a teenager growing up in the Fens, the coastal lands of East Anglia, and of his marriage. He weaves himself into history. Why? Because personal stories make history relevant. The telling shifts this way and that in time. The telling is fragmentary and nonlinear. This is a technique that usually does not appeal to me, but it works here! There is an excitement, a sense of tension that builds in the novel. You want to know more and more and more. A sentence is started and then left hanging. You know exactly what was to be said but is then not said. This writing style is unusual; I have not run into it before. It’s good, very good. It draws your attention, keeps you alert and adds suspense. There is an underlying satirical tone that has you questioning what is implied. The prose is thought provoking. As we are shown why a knowledge of history is important, we see life in the Fens. The area and life there are drawn vividly. We learn of how wetlands are recovered, of floods, sluice gates, the management of locks and even eels. The spawning of European eels in the Sargasso Sea and eels in a girl’s panties. All of this is told by a master storyteller, an instructor who has a natural talent for teaching. Think back to those special teachers you have had—those teachers that incite curiosity, that make learning magical. Reading this book is like being in such a class. What is drawn is no happy story, but it feels real. We read of the discovery and awakening of sexual desire. Of incest, mental retardation, jealousy and envy. Abortion and deaths. A father fights in the First World War and his son in the Second World War. Is history simply a record of past mistakes? How do religious beliefs fit into the picture? Can knowledge of past events make us better people? With knowledge can we make better decisions? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. Life without curiosity is a dead end. If you have curiosity, how can one stop asking why, why, why as life unrolls? If you are a person who incessantly asks why, the need for history is a given. Christian Rodska narrates the audiobook. At the beginning he reads too fast. He slows down. As you come to know who is who, the story is no longer difficult to follow. By the end I thought the narration was worth four stars—very good! The book shouldn’t work but it most definitely does work. I like it a lot and will be reading more by the author soon. I know my gut reaction—explaining why is what is difficult.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Bettie

    Description from Wiki: The film follows the story of an anguished English-born Pittsburgh high school teacher (Irons) in 1974 going through a reassessment of his life. His method is to narrate his life to his class and interweave three generations of his family's history. The film portrays the history teacher's narrative in the form of flashbacks to tell the story of a teenage boy and his mentally challenged older brother living in The Fens of England with their widowed father. In an opening sce Description from Wiki: The film follows the story of an anguished English-born Pittsburgh high school teacher (Irons) in 1974 going through a reassessment of his life. His method is to narrate his life to his class and interweave three generations of his family's history. The film portrays the history teacher's narrative in the form of flashbacks to tell the story of a teenage boy and his mentally challenged older brother living in The Fens of England with their widowed father. In an opening scene the teacher's childless wife (Cusack) takes a child from a supermarket and believes it to be hers. The teacher explains to his class how he and his wife had a teenage romance which led to a disastrous abortion that left her infertile. The teacher is tortured by the guilt of this as well as the jealousy he demonstrated to his older brother when he suspected his girlfriend's child was his brother's. The girl's flirtation with the older brother sets off events that lead to the older boy's death by drowning. A side-theme is the teacher's grandfather, who was a successful brewer and who fathered with his daughter the narrator's older brother. The film ends with the teacher's dismissal from his school and a possible renewal of his relationship with his wife. At last, the film has been viewed and it was splendid - the casting alone was a canny deal. Bettie's Books

  5. 5 out of 5

    David

    Like the countryside in which it is set, I recall this book as being grey, depressing, and sodden. I can't recall a thing that I learned from it - all I remember is the enormous sense of relief I had once I managed to finish it. Though, as the blurb helpfully point out, there are eels and incest. Like the countryside in which it is set, I recall this book as being grey, depressing, and sodden. I can't recall a thing that I learned from it - all I remember is the enormous sense of relief I had once I managed to finish it. Though, as the blurb helpfully point out, there are eels and incest.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Nigeyb

    Murder, incest, guilt, insanity, ale and eels. Hard to imagine not loving a book with themes like that eh? Or is it? Waterland: Picador Classic is undeniably an impressive and ambitious novel which ruminates upon history's relentless tide of change and humanity’s subsequent shifting fortunes. It’s also firmly rooted in the watery world of the East Anglian Fens, the rich and fertile flood plains, in which its inhabitants are forever locked in an ongoing battle with water, and which can never be co Murder, incest, guilt, insanity, ale and eels. Hard to imagine not loving a book with themes like that eh? Or is it? Waterland: Picador Classic is undeniably an impressive and ambitious novel which ruminates upon history's relentless tide of change and humanity’s subsequent shifting fortunes. It’s also firmly rooted in the watery world of the East Anglian Fens, the rich and fertile flood plains, in which its inhabitants are forever locked in an ongoing battle with water, and which can never be comprehensively won by either side. The left side of my brain admired the novel’s ambition and scope. The right side of my brain remained detached and I was unable to stay immersed. Sometimes, when I picked this up, I thought how good it was, however it never truly grabbed me: the non linear structure, multiple narratives, and contrasting styles, were ultimately too jarring. So, whilst clever, ambitious and diverse, it was a book I admired more than enjoyed. 3/5 Waterland: Picador Classic (1983) by Graham Swift

  7. 4 out of 5

    Marc

    An ingeniously constructed novel: a mix of an autobiographical story, a murder story, considerations on history, a reconstruction of a family tree, and an introduction into Fenland, the outstretched peatland near Cambridge. Towards the end there is a lot of jumping in time and space going on. Principal character is Tom Crick, a history teacher, and dramatic moments in his life are the frame of the story. I appreciated the short reveries on what history really is about, on the importance of storie An ingeniously constructed novel: a mix of an autobiographical story, a murder story, considerations on history, a reconstruction of a family tree, and an introduction into Fenland, the outstretched peatland near Cambridge. Towards the end there is a lot of jumping in time and space going on. Principal character is Tom Crick, a history teacher, and dramatic moments in his life are the frame of the story. I appreciated the short reveries on what history really is about, on the importance of stories, life being in essence a story (very postmodern). Swift surely knows the strengths and weaknesses of the history-profession (more on this in my History-account on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...). The story about Tom Crick and the Fenland was very interesting but it also had its weak elements, and the end is rather disappointing, as if Swift not knew how to make an appropriate end to it. So, this was kind of a mixed bag to me.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Giedre

    After Rushdie‘s “The Moor’s Last Sigh” I could only expect that another family saga will end up in my hands: "Waterland" by Graham Swift. It was my first plunge into Swift’s waters, and I hope that it won't be the last one. I only regret reading Waterland in Lithuanian instead of its original language, and I will not know until I pick up the next book by Swift if my four stars should be attributed to my not fully identifying with the author’s voice or the translator’s. Waterland is a story about After Rushdie‘s “The Moor’s Last Sigh” I could only expect that another family saga will end up in my hands: "Waterland" by Graham Swift. It was my first plunge into Swift’s waters, and I hope that it won't be the last one. I only regret reading Waterland in Lithuanian instead of its original language, and I will not know until I pick up the next book by Swift if my four stars should be attributed to my not fully identifying with the author’s voice or the translator’s. Waterland is a story about storytelling, a narrative about narration that analyses the meaning and the necessity of history. “Children, only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. But man - let me offer you a definition - is the storytelling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right. Even in his last moments, it's said, in the split second of a fatal fall - or when he's about to drown - he sees, passing rapidly before him, the story of his whole life.” And so the protagonist of the book, Tom, a history teacher in a high school, tells us a story. About the “waterland”, the low-lying fens somewhere in east England. About drainage and beer brewing, madness and murder, coming of age, incest, abortion and childlessness. Swift suggests that history is cyclical, that any revolution for a better future is always based on a vision or an adapted reflection of a period of prosperity and wellbeing in the past. That a change leads to another change, which does not always mean progress. That there is also regression and repetition. The Fens, where the biggest part of the story is based, serve Swift as the main metaphor of this cyclicality. Despite centuries of efforts to drain and improve the land in the fens, the water had always found the way to return through rains and floods, bringing disasters to the inhabitants. Do we all live in the fens of history, I dare to ask? And is there more to it than trying to keep our heads above the water of its recurring floods? I may or I may not find the answer, but I will keep wondering. "Your "Why?" gives the answer. Your demand for explanation provides an explanation. Isn't the seeking of reasons itself inevitably an historical process, since it must always work backwards from what came after to what came before? And so long as we have this itch for explanations, must we not always carry round with us this cumbersome but precious bag of clues called history? Another definition, children: Man, the animal which demands an explanation, the animal which asks Why."

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kim

    What is it about Swift's writing that I find so haunting? Nearly all of his novels are about a middle-aged man in an existential crisis, and yet I find them deeply, arrestingly relatable even as a young, happy lady. It might be his concise sentence structure, or it might be his ability to, at the end of the story, connect all the small moments and rush them toward the reader in a fast, breathtaking wave until finally leaving a brisk declaration of The Point of Everything in the wake, like a brok What is it about Swift's writing that I find so haunting? Nearly all of his novels are about a middle-aged man in an existential crisis, and yet I find them deeply, arrestingly relatable even as a young, happy lady. It might be his concise sentence structure, or it might be his ability to, at the end of the story, connect all the small moments and rush them toward the reader in a fast, breathtaking wave until finally leaving a brisk declaration of The Point of Everything in the wake, like a broken shell on shore. If you find yourself at the end sitting on a beach, skin saturated in emotion, mind stunned by the force of Swift's writing, and holding a husk of this book, then we'll know it's the latter. I don't know, you guys. Maybe he's just good with the words. G. Swift, you keep throwing books over the Atlantic and I'll keep catching them with open arms.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Aubrey

    Yes, there's eels. Yes, there's incest. But more importantly, there's a subtle flow of history, back and forth across the pages from the French Revolution to the nuclear days of WWII. Lessons learned from the trials and tribulations of the Crick family can easily be applied to the great events of world history, and history itself is shown to be an irresistible constant of useless baggage wrapped around dire foretelling. The world is racing to improve itself at such speeds as to dash itself acros Yes, there's eels. Yes, there's incest. But more importantly, there's a subtle flow of history, back and forth across the pages from the French Revolution to the nuclear days of WWII. Lessons learned from the trials and tribulations of the Crick family can easily be applied to the great events of world history, and history itself is shown to be an irresistible constant of useless baggage wrapped around dire foretelling. The world is racing to improve itself at such speeds as to dash itself across the rocks of its own progress, falling in love with the idea of complete destruction in order to break from the mindless fervor pace. Humans are the most obvious instrument and often times side effect of this juggernaut, and as Tom shows, the only thing to be done is to try and understand the facts behind the madness. Not to get THE answer, but SOME answer, delving deep and retrieving something serviceable, something that will reason out the unfortunate events and say, "Here. This is why it happened. Knowing this won't change anything, save your ability to cope. And perhaps add you to the chain of consequences propagated from this history. Your decision."

  11. 5 out of 5

    Soumen Daschoudhury

    Tom Crick, now a history teacher, is forced into retirement due to an unfortunate and ghastly act committed by his wife. Why? Tom Crick asks and seeks answers to a lot of why’s because history rides uncomfortably behind that very word, that very monosyllabic question – why? It has a strong and veritable bearing on today, this history, the past, that incident; incidents. It shapes, shakes, cautions, humiliates, and intimidates – this history. Would the gory chapters of the French revolution prove ha Tom Crick, now a history teacher, is forced into retirement due to an unfortunate and ghastly act committed by his wife. Why? Tom Crick asks and seeks answers to a lot of why’s because history rides uncomfortably behind that very word, that very monosyllabic question – why? It has a strong and veritable bearing on today, this history, the past, that incident; incidents. It shapes, shakes, cautions, humiliates, and intimidates – this history. Would the gory chapters of the French revolution prove half as interesting if I told you instead of the happening of a particular day on the bridge of the Hockwell Lode, a water course draining into the river Leem, where five children stand to dive, to prove their manliness, to show it to a curious girl, standing with her hands crossed across her shoulders in an attempt to conceal the obvious. Is this where it all began? Or would the horrific incestuous relationship between a lonely father and her lovely daughter draw your attention? It can’t be vulgar, can it if they deem it to be love, both father and daughter? Or wait, maybe this would rouse your interest; a girl of fifteen getting pregnant in the hapless curiosity and discoveries of the body and then never being able to deliver a child and feeling the need to steal one at an age above 50; “God told me”, she said. History doesn't always need to be about kings and queens, wars and revolutions, countries and soldiers, little Tom Crick and his childhood sweetheart Mary Metcalf had created history too, by doing a little and by letting a lot been done. They created and let themselves be slaughtered at its altars. Everyone indulges in a history that is cunning, unbelievable, threatening, and treacherous – we all like extremities, don’t we and then we sympathize with the very pain, with the treachery, with a catastrophe, revealing unconsciously our shamelessness. THIS is what I term brilliant storytelling. A masterpiece! With every neatly arranged chapter, the author ties you to a slack string and craftily leads you through what seems to be an aimless direction, lures you with his words, creates a suspense and when the string is taut and you seem lost in digression, he snaps it back and you fall face down, pleasurably into the embrace of the primary plot and your mind races and traces in excitement, connecting to it and you end up grinning in the deliberate attempts of the authors digression each time. The novel is devoid of succinctness because the unfolding of a life and its mysteries lies in its details. Painstakingly, yet colorfully, the author, like the most meticulous surgeon has successfully dissected each aspect of the incident. So if there is a slimy eel involved on the scene, the author has poked into its very existence, its breeding patterns, its origination, the research behind it. If a bottle of ale is the weapon in question, then you are dragged into the inglorious history of its brewing and its makers. The river Leem, the scene of crime flows into numerous pages. The first person narrative invigorates the imagination. This is an uncomfortable quilt you would like to tuck under and not want to let go off. Am a Graham Swift fan now!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Robert Sheard

    This is Swift's masterpiece. It's been two decades since I've last read it, but it absolutely holds up to the rereading. If possible, I love it even more now. This is Swift's masterpiece. It's been two decades since I've last read it, but it absolutely holds up to the rereading. If possible, I love it even more now.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Greg

    UPDATE: I thought I'd revisit this one, as I do often for books I rate 5 stars. Does that rating hold? In this case, no. It took me a long time to get through a second reading, and it just didn't cast a spell like it did the first time. It's still VERY good, but for me, 2 years have passed and I can't sing praises as loudly as before. Maybe it's just me, maybe it's the 2 years, maybe at the time I read it there had been an issue (emotional?, physical?) this book addressed. I reread my original no UPDATE: I thought I'd revisit this one, as I do often for books I rate 5 stars. Does that rating hold? In this case, no. It took me a long time to get through a second reading, and it just didn't cast a spell like it did the first time. It's still VERY good, but for me, 2 years have passed and I can't sing praises as loudly as before. Maybe it's just me, maybe it's the 2 years, maybe at the time I read it there had been an issue (emotional?, physical?) this book addressed. I reread my original notes (condensed severely for the original posted in July of 2016) and the ending, instead of feeling just right, left me cold: if I'd authored this book, I'd have done something different. Besides, our Earth has changed in so much, I understand more about some things, and I'm convinced (via a number of science books I read in 2017) I understand very little about most things. Or perhaps it just surprised me then, but not today. ORIGINAL: From Tim Binding's introduction: "Waterland has the appearance of a magnificent engine, a shining and brilliant marvel of construction. It has its oiled wheels, its cogs, its ratchets, its levers. It breathes power." The book jacket claims this is an "extraordinary masterpiece." Overstated praise? No, this one is a beauty. And to think I simply pulled this off a shelf at the library, as I often look for books I've never heard of by authors unknown to me. Bothersome to realize the possibility of many other brilliant works (brilliant to me, that is) of which I haven't encountered. "Waterland" is easily the best novel I've read so far this year.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Holly

    I really loved this the first two or three times I read it--I even saw the movie adaptation with Jeremy Irons, which wasn't very good. But then I reread it 15 years later, and thought it was insufferably pretentious. John Irving read it too--I am convinced he ripped off elements of this book for "A Prayer for Owen Meany," which was based mostly on "The Scarlet Letter" and is a piece of shit. I really loved this the first two or three times I read it--I even saw the movie adaptation with Jeremy Irons, which wasn't very good. But then I reread it 15 years later, and thought it was insufferably pretentious. John Irving read it too--I am convinced he ripped off elements of this book for "A Prayer for Owen Meany," which was based mostly on "The Scarlet Letter" and is a piece of shit.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Roger Brunyate

    The Tide of History Graham Swift won the Booker Prize in 1996 for Last Orders, the story of a group of East-End Londoners on a trip to dispose of a dead friend's ashes, and looking back at the mingled histories of their relationships going back decades. Swift's earlier novel Waterland (1983) is also preoccupied with the past, but it is a much easier book to read, with fewer characters and a more articulate narrator. This is Tom Crick, a South London history teacher who is about to be retired, und The Tide of History Graham Swift won the Booker Prize in 1996 for Last Orders, the story of a group of East-End Londoners on a trip to dispose of a dead friend's ashes, and looking back at the mingled histories of their relationships going back decades. Swift's earlier novel Waterland (1983) is also preoccupied with the past, but it is a much easier book to read, with fewer characters and a more articulate narrator. This is Tom Crick, a South London history teacher who is about to be retired, under the guise of phasing out history in the school, but really for personal reasons that will become apparent. The novel is ostensibly the final history classes that Tom delivers to his students—but it is a loose structure, full of fascinating digressions. Tom's official subject is the French Revolution, but he spends more time on the story of his family and the history and geography of his birthplace, the fens of East Anglia. In particular, he focuses on one particular year, 1943, a summer of growth and exploration, when teenage sexual encounters led to more than the usual consequences. Comments on the cover of the paperback edition compare Swift to Melville and Hardy. Both comparisons are just, although Swift's style is his own. Certainly his willingness to suspend the story for long accounts of the draining of the fens, or the rise of the brewing industry, or the breeding habits of the European Eel must owe something to Moby-Dick; I can't claim that all his discursions feed back into the story (relatively simple as it is), but they do give great richness to its context. And Swift is like Hardy in his extraordinary ability to root his writing in a detailed and intimate sense of place—in this case at the opposite side of England, in the bleak marshlands won with difficulty from the sea. This has personal relevance for me, as my own ancestors were among those who came over to England from Holland in the 17th century to help drain the fens. What I know of the area today fits exactly with what Swift describes, but his details of banks and backwaters and feel for the spirit of living year-round amid such expanses reveal a writer who has the fenland in the marrow of his bones. There are secrets that emerge from all this excavation, but few surprises. Swift has a way of touching on something, leaving it, and returning much later by a different route. As a result, almost everything that happens has a tragic inevitability. It is here that Tom's preoccupation with history and Swift's feeling for the fenland come full circle. Tides ebb and flow; reclaimed land is lost to silt and water and painfully regained once more; history is a slow cycle that turns continually around the same old mistakes. Swift may take a pessimistic view, but no more than, say, Ian McEwan, whom he resembles in many of his themes (cf. The Child in Time ) and in the resilient life he gives to his characters. So it is not all tragedy. Even Tom Crick, who understands the long view better than anybody, goes into retirement with his head held high.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mark Joyce

    The Norwich, Gildsey, Peterborough railway was introduced primarily as a passenger service but, by enabling cheap freight transportation, also contributed to the emergence of rail as the principal artery of agricultural trade in mid-nineteenth century East Anglia, overtaking inland waterways, with radical implications for the region’s economy and socio-political fabric. If you struggled to get to the end of that sentence then Waterland may not be for you, as it’s basically hundreds and hundreds The Norwich, Gildsey, Peterborough railway was introduced primarily as a passenger service but, by enabling cheap freight transportation, also contributed to the emergence of rail as the principal artery of agricultural trade in mid-nineteenth century East Anglia, overtaking inland waterways, with radical implications for the region’s economy and socio-political fabric. If you struggled to get to the end of that sentence then Waterland may not be for you, as it’s basically hundreds and hundreds of pages of that sort of thing interspersed with a bit of incestuous shagging between the idiot offspring of farmers and lock keepers. It’s part literature, part historiography, with Swift using the Fenlands of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire as his canvas for asking “large questions in small places”. As a history graduate who sat a finals paper in historiography, and as an occasional visitor to the picturesque and interesting part of England in which the novel is set, I embarked on Waterland fully expecting to lap it up. Unfortunately I was bored stiff after 100 pages, which I attribute in part to the contrived way in which the author introduces his meditations on historical theory and methodology (an elderly history teacher responding to a claim by a precocious student that learning history is pointless, which ties into a sub-plot around the teacher’s wife going mad and trying to abduct one of the kids). But my main gripe is his fondness for sentences of four, five and sometimes upwards of six sub-clauses, which renders large parts of it bloody near unreadable.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Amelia

    EDIT: After a few days and still thinking a lot about this book. I changed my rating to five stars. 4.5 This was the first book by Graham Swift I have read and it was certainly not the last. This story about a familiy over generations, about a landscape, but also about history and the question if it even exists or is actually capable to teach us something, about the tragedy of life and humankind, has really gripped me. And the writing is wonderful, there have been a lot of passages I noted down. T EDIT: After a few days and still thinking a lot about this book. I changed my rating to five stars. 4.5 This was the first book by Graham Swift I have read and it was certainly not the last. This story about a familiy over generations, about a landscape, but also about history and the question if it even exists or is actually capable to teach us something, about the tragedy of life and humankind, has really gripped me. And the writing is wonderful, there have been a lot of passages I noted down. There are books you feel certain about, after you have finished them, that they will mean something to you for a long time, maybe even forever. and this will be one of this books for me for sure. There have been some flaws here and there, so therefore no five stars, but they are not important and maybe I will change my rating after this book has settled down properly, because this review is written just immediately after I have finished the book.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer

    Excellent and atmospheric novel – conjuring up a strong sense of time and place (both the Fens with its waterways, mud and eels – such that the Fens becomes one of the characters in the story) and the late cold war feeling of an end to progress and a possibility of Armageddon which informs the attitude of the children (especially their spokesperson Price) to history. The clear theme of the book is history – and the interplay between natural history (the book contains a particularly detailed and Excellent and atmospheric novel – conjuring up a strong sense of time and place (both the Fens with its waterways, mud and eels – such that the Fens becomes one of the characters in the story) and the late cold war feeling of an end to progress and a possibility of Armageddon which informs the attitude of the children (especially their spokesperson Price) to history. The clear theme of the book is history – and the interplay between natural history (the book contains a particularly detailed and fascinating exposition on the mysterious lifecycle of Eels), political history, personal history (both in its intersection with political history – such as the two World Wars, but also incidents which while not even registering in recorded history have huge and life changing implications for those involved), local history, narrative history (and storytelling – a key theme) and the teaching of history. Revolutions (in their literal sense), cycles, reclamation and memory are also key themes and the book is also infused with an English folk/superstition slant on magical realism.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Erika

    If I could only have five books with me on a desert island, this would be one of them. It's got everything--madness, arson, alemaking, incest, the claiming of land by technology and its reclamation by the sea, and the French Revolution. Plus a lyrical, fairytale-like tone. No other book I've read explores the relationship between geography and the history of a people better than this one. What more could you want? Swift was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for this novel and won it for Last Orde If I could only have five books with me on a desert island, this would be one of them. It's got everything--madness, arson, alemaking, incest, the claiming of land by technology and its reclamation by the sea, and the French Revolution. Plus a lyrical, fairytale-like tone. No other book I've read explores the relationship between geography and the history of a people better than this one. What more could you want? Swift was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for this novel and won it for Last Orders, but IMO he should have won it for Waterland instead. It's a much better book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    This is the story of Tom Crick, a history teacher, who tries to find the real meaning of life. The movie based on this book Waterland (1992) is so good as the book. Stars: Jeremy Irons, Sinéad Cusack, Ethan Hawke among others This is the story of Tom Crick, a history teacher, who tries to find the real meaning of life. The movie based on this book Waterland (1992) is so good as the book. Stars: Jeremy Irons, Sinéad Cusack, Ethan Hawke among others

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mary Slowik

    "Children, there's this thing called civilisation. It's built of hopes and dreams. It's only an idea. It's not real. It's artificial. No one ever said it was real. It's not natural, no one ever said it was natural. It's built by the learning process; by trial and error. It breaks easily. No one ever said it couldn't fall to bits. And no one ever said it would last for ever." When I add a book to my 'pessimism' shelf, after having finished it, I probably enjoyed it. This isn't always the case, but "Children, there's this thing called civilisation. It's built of hopes and dreams. It's only an idea. It's not real. It's artificial. No one ever said it was real. It's not natural, no one ever said it was natural. It's built by the learning process; by trial and error. It breaks easily. No one ever said it couldn't fall to bits. And no one ever said it would last for ever." When I add a book to my 'pessimism' shelf, after having finished it, I probably enjoyed it. This isn't always the case, but I get an undeniable, sympathetic pleasure out of reading lines that express a dark, dismal view of humankind and its future. Not to say that Waterland here is some relentlessly gloomy read. In fact it's deeply honest and heartfelt, even brilliant (in the sense of casting light) in several passages. It reminds me a lot of Thomas Hardy's work, in the tone that manages to be consistently humorous and clear-sighted, never shying away from painful insights. It's also probably the most parenthetical book I've ever read, with lots of little asides and notes included between parentheses on nearly every page. But to return to the idea of pessimism... its main character, Tom Crick, is a history teacher who seems to understand-- and wishes to impart this understanding to his students-- that progress is a myth. That revolutions are full-circle affairs, so to speak, always bringing us back to the same point, or somewhere further back. Fine, fine, you may say, but what is it about? Well, a lot of things. The narrative is split, with modern-day Tom trying to hang onto his job and slowly revealing details about his child-thief of a wife, as well as dealing with a precocious and challenging student named Price. Then there's childhood/adolescence Tom, falling into ill-fated love, and a body washing up in the family lock (you know, like in a canal), and his dimwitted brother Dick (yes, that's right: Dick Crick) and Tom just figuring himself out. Then there are the centuries of backstory about the Fens, that watery region of England, as well as stuff about eels, and incest, and phlegm, and yeah. There's a lot. Kind of like a compressed Moby Dick. What's genius about it all is that, really, everything manages to come together. And I do mean everything. I once read (or heard) that the central appeal of any novel is the association of disparate ideas, the author's ability to link things together in unexpected and interesting ways. This neat trick is pulled off over and over again in Waterland. It's really noticeable, and impressive, and rewards the reader (as any good book should) for paying attention. I originally gave this four stars but upon reflection, and after writing this review, I realized how much I enjoyed it. There were times I felt pulled in too many directions or a little fatigued by the stream-of-consciousness, but these are my failings, not the book's.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly

    The uniqueness of this novel is in its narrative voice, that of a history professor, so it has a pedantic feel to it, like a long series of lectures (as, indeed, some scenes take place in a classroom). The main action, where the narrator grew up, is a kind of place I have not actually seen, which here is called the Fens, and which in my imagination are but swamps expanded into acres upon acres. It's basically a family history spanning more than two centuries with its quirky characters, its trage The uniqueness of this novel is in its narrative voice, that of a history professor, so it has a pedantic feel to it, like a long series of lectures (as, indeed, some scenes take place in a classroom). The main action, where the narrator grew up, is a kind of place I have not actually seen, which here is called the Fens, and which in my imagination are but swamps expanded into acres upon acres. It's basically a family history spanning more than two centuries with its quirky characters, its tragedies, past glories, some sex, incest, suicide, murder, alcoholic intoxication and the usual stuff one finds when one digs up ancestral past to turn it into a novel which people will read with their mouths open in shock or surprise. I do not find it difficult to relate to this novel because the narrator, like a true professor, love to occasionally segue into interesting topics perhaps to demonstrate his expansive knowledge about things (or, to be more precise, the impressive research done by the author--the narrator in real life). Many of these interesting little sub-topics are familiar to me. Like chapter 51 which speaks of something I often wake up with every cold morning-- "About Phlegm " Or mucus. Or slime. An ambiguous substance. Neither liquid nor solid: a viscous semi-fluid. Benign (lubricating, cleansing, mollifying, protective) yet disagreeable (a universal mark of disgust: to spit). It checks inflammation; retains and disperses moisture. When fire breaks out in the body (or in the soul) phlegm rushes to the scene. It tackles emergencies. When all is quiet it does maintenance work on drains and hydrants. "Its soggy virtues make it inimical to inspiration or cheer. It resists the sanguine and the choleric and inclines towards melancholy. A preponderance of phlegm may produce the following marks of temperament: stolidity; sobriety; patience; level-headedness; calm. But also their counterparts: indolence; dullness; fatalism; indifference; stupor. "An ambiguous humour, said to be characteristic of the insular and bronchitic English. It affects the elderly; accumulates with experience. To the sick and fevered it brings equivocal comfort. Eases yet obstructs; assists yet overwhelms. According to ancient tradition the phlegmatic or watery disposition is to be remedied by infusions of strengthening liquors. A specific in all cases (though never a permanent or predictable one): the administration of alcohol." There are also something quotable here about history, and beer, but the best--for me--is this one about phlegm.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Sense of History

    It might be strange to find a novel amidst my history books, but in fact this novel, perhaps even more than a dull nonfiction book, examines the conditions and limitations of historical writing. In short it is the story of a history teacher about to be sacked by his school supervisor after some dramatic incident in his life. In a recurrent dialogue with his pupils the teacher tells the story of his life and the traumatic events that have shaped his youth, framing it into a narrative on his famil It might be strange to find a novel amidst my history books, but in fact this novel, perhaps even more than a dull nonfiction book, examines the conditions and limitations of historical writing. In short it is the story of a history teacher about to be sacked by his school supervisor after some dramatic incident in his life. In a recurrent dialogue with his pupils the teacher tells the story of his life and the traumatic events that have shaped his youth, framing it into a narrative on his family history and the history of his home region, the Fenlands, in the neighborhood of Cambridge. The whole novel is composed in a very ingenious way, giving it the aura of a thriller. At the start of the novel, Tom Crick (the history teacher) philosophizes about the importance of history (9/10 is the past, 1/10 is Here and Now), in defence against a very critical pupil that states that only the Here and Now and the future count. Crick is very convincing in showing how the past shapes the present and how it can be very illuminating. But whilst telling his own personal story and thinking about the dramatic events he has undergone, his view on history begins to shift. He realizes that representing history as a story of progress, with a clear path of causes and consequences, just doesn't suffice to do justice to the impact of what has happened. So Crick opts for an inclusive, cyclical view on history (just like in the Fenlands the water always claims back the land); in this way "natural history" is a kind of anti-history, but a very powerful one, and must not be neglected. So Crick ends up storytelling: reconstructing the past, framing it into a narrative has a great explanatory and healing power. But Crick also realizes the conditional quality of this storytelling: the past and the present are interrelated and so the past is always shifting and changing. Nevertheless, this kind of storytelling has great value, because there's nothing else to help man to cope with the void or nothingness of existence. As you can see, this novel offers powerful stuff to think about history, the reconstruction of history and history as a narrative. As far as I can see, Swift has put himself in the postmodernist tradition, very close to Hayden White. But I think he has a lot more to offer, because he relates his metahistorical message to the personal, existential story of a precise person. Recommended reading!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jason

    Where do we draw the line between history and stories? A personal history, the story or one's family, the study of what brought you to your present state and situation - history? stories? A search for answers will always lead backwards, and sometimes what you find is not pleasant; perhaps at times not knowing is best. Gothic family drama flutters back in forth through the life of history teacher protagonist, Tom Crick, and back through the history of his family and the flat Fens countryside that Where do we draw the line between history and stories? A personal history, the story or one's family, the study of what brought you to your present state and situation - history? stories? A search for answers will always lead backwards, and sometimes what you find is not pleasant; perhaps at times not knowing is best. Gothic family drama flutters back in forth through the life of history teacher protagonist, Tom Crick, and back through the history of his family and the flat Fens countryside that they called home. Rife with tragedy and loss of innocence, this book propels you through wars, death, incest, madness, murder and all the familial love and love of life that goes along with these toils. The sepia, waterlogged scenery is bleak and eerie, but also poignantly beautiful, an important character in it's own right. The writing is detailed, at times desperate, and at others sparse. The style of writing gives voice to the emotions not plainly stated and the chaos within the minds of us all. This is not only a Gothic drama, but also compelling for it's well crafted mysteries. Secrets are alluded to often but not completely revealed until we get the entire history and even then the writer has enough of a respect for the reader to not spell everything out in crayon simple detail - you, the reader, can piece it together; you can bridge the gaps.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lori

    Tom Crick, a middle-aged history teacher, faces job termination due to consolidation of history into a more general subject area. He spends more time discussing events local to the Fens and his own story than the subject of history. He also faces challenges at home as his wife suffered a mental breakdown. Swift's writing style is unique. This book would lend itself well to a book group for discussion as readers will engage with the narrative differently. Tom Crick, a middle-aged history teacher, faces job termination due to consolidation of history into a more general subject area. He spends more time discussing events local to the Fens and his own story than the subject of history. He also faces challenges at home as his wife suffered a mental breakdown. Swift's writing style is unique. This book would lend itself well to a book group for discussion as readers will engage with the narrative differently.

  26. 4 out of 5

    jin jie

    *It is recommended that you do not read this if you have not read the novel, and you should read this with no prior expectations* This was really something that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, because of the expertly crafted sentences and adroit sense of English by Swift. This novel explores the nature and importance of history through universal stories passed down from generations (and I really found it interesting that Swift manages to write a novel spanning so many different time periods). This *It is recommended that you do not read this if you have not read the novel, and you should read this with no prior expectations* This was really something that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, because of the expertly crafted sentences and adroit sense of English by Swift. This novel explores the nature and importance of history through universal stories passed down from generations (and I really found it interesting that Swift manages to write a novel spanning so many different time periods). This novel is fantastic because it is brilliantly written, with very realistic depictions of his characters. Swift seamlessly incorporates the different time periods and characters into the plot, interweaving the time periods with skilful precision, jumping from one period to another with remarkable ease. What really captured my attention was the idea that in seeking reality, we spin tales to help protect ourselves from the harsh realities of the world, and this is something that is really universal. In fact, thinking about Swift's seamless narrations, it really kind of sounds like Tom's final swansong in his (dying) career as a history teacher, as streams of memories come into consciousness, and Tom just allows them to manifest through his own narrations. Tom's final lecture is not just about history; it is about his story, and how the lessons we learn from the quotidian life are actually the selfsame ones we learn from world events which once shook the world. Tom's final lecture proves to be the most important, most relevant, and most heartwarming and personal, even though it came from a history teacher who pales in extreme comparison to monumental world events. To end it off, here is one passage that I really enjoyed: "Once upon a time people believed in the end of the world. Look in the old books: see how many times and on how many pretexts the end of the world has been prophesied and foreseen, calculated and imagined. But that, of course, was superstition. The world grew up. It didn’t end. People threw off superstition as they threw off their parents. They said, Don’t believe that old mumbojumbo. You can change the world, you can make it better. The heavens won’t fall. It was true. For a little while – it didn’t start so long ago, only a few generations ago – the world went through its revolutionary, progressive phase; and the world believed it would never end, it would go on getting better. But then the end of the world came back again, not as an idea or a belief but as something the world had fashioned for itself all the time it was growing up. Which only goes to show that if the end of the world didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it. There’s this thing called progress. But it doesn’t progress, it doesn’t go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. It’s progress if you can stop the world slipping away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged, vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn’t go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires."

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ruth

    C1983: This book won the Guardian fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I am now certain that I am a philistine. Whilst relishing the truly wonderful use of the English language, the continuing philosophical asides, whilst serving a purpose, really started to become draining towards the end. (Excuse the pun!) Very little dialogue with the narrative playing the larger role. The characters were brilliantly drawn and the family history eye opening. Of course, we all know what goes C1983: This book won the Guardian fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I am now certain that I am a philistine. Whilst relishing the truly wonderful use of the English language, the continuing philosophical asides, whilst serving a purpose, really started to become draining towards the end. (Excuse the pun!) Very little dialogue with the narrative playing the larger role. The characters were brilliantly drawn and the family history eye opening. Of course, we all know what goes on in the fens (! ) so sadly it wasn’t all that shocking or perhaps the way the story slowly meandered towards the revelation helped to ameliorate the shock. The 2 star rating is probably based on how the novel left me feeling – somewhat depressed and moody. It is a brooding story set in a brooding landscape and whilst there were some clever asides, I did not find much humour to lighten the load, so to speak. This is definitely a book that shows how the sins of one’s forefathers can impact on the present day/situation. FWFTB: schoolteacher, Fenland, bleak, brewers, lock-keepers. FCN: Tom Crick, Mary Metcalf, Freddie Parr, Lewis Scott, Sarah Atkinson. “Price…the more you try to dissect events, the more you lose hold of them – the more they seem to have occurred largely in people’s imagination…”

  28. 4 out of 5

    Denis

    Waterland may be the most intelligent book I have ever read. It is a mystery, a novel, a history or eeling and beer making on the fens and a romance. Graham swift is one of the best writers in English and this books is just way better than his other excellent stuff.

  29. 4 out of 5

    WyrmbergSabrina

    Well that was different. First up, parts of this I really loved. Other bits less so. The narrative is all over the place, just from one timeline and point to another which really can frustrate. The narrative voice, sometimes a clear storyteller, other times a rambling memory of history. And the tangents that have relevance to the story, to history, but go off for several paragraphs before dragging the story back, sort of, to the main plot. This is not a story of great deeds but one of life, family Well that was different. First up, parts of this I really loved. Other bits less so. The narrative is all over the place, just from one timeline and point to another which really can frustrate. The narrative voice, sometimes a clear storyteller, other times a rambling memory of history. And the tangents that have relevance to the story, to history, but go off for several paragraphs before dragging the story back, sort of, to the main plot. This is not a story of great deeds but one of life, family, love, death, secrets and memory. It's mostly about history, and as other reviewers have mentioned, eels and incest. Yep, it gets pretty ugly at one point. Ugh. But the language is beautiful, the details fascinating, and watching a man reflect over his family's life is strangely hypnotic. It's not a book I'd have picked up, and possibly one I would not have finished if I wasn't stuck on the bus without an alternative. But I'm glad I read it, even if I'm not sure sometimes what I just read. Certainly different.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Julian Tooke

    I found this novel extraordinary; it achieves so much simultaneously. It has a complex structure of great virtuosity. It tackles big historical and existential issues but still grounds itself in intimate characterisation. It’s stylistically clever but the cleverness never compromises or precludes emotional depth. I loved it.

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