Sebastian Smee

Too much information

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Graham Swift

Picador, pp. 247, £

In managing too carefully the revelation of truth, parents often betray it. Graham Swift’s new novel is narrated by a mother and addressed to ‘you’, her teenage twins, boy and girl. It involves us, as voyeurs, in the revelation of a truth that will come as a bolt from the blue to the children. But it tries to manage this revelation so carefully, with so many detours, so much cushioning and qualification, that we may easily wonder whether the truth has been served or betrayed.

The novel takes the form of a letter written by Paula, the mother, late one night while her children and her husband, Mike, sleep. The next day, in accordance with a plan she and Mike have decided on long before, the children, who have just turned 16, will be told that he is not their biological father. We are to understand that they will receive their mother’s letter after the news has been broken verbally.

Paula writes to the twins: ‘I want you to listen to these things I’m telling you and not to hear them at all.’ The hesitation and loving anxiety in her voice make her a credible and often moving scribe. Swift’s writing throughout is as assured and subtle as ever.

But the effect of Paula’s narrative loops and delays and hesitations is to create a sense of suspense which is never quite fulfilled. To the extent that it is, the reader’s excitement and interest are snuffed out by over-elaboration: Paula’s nervous verbosity — the endless qualifying and fluffing up of emotional pillows — never really lets up, so that much of what is poignant and heartfelt in her account comes to seem mundane and repetitive.

It turns out that Mike was shooting blanks. Paula doesn’t quite put it like that, but it’s a common enough occurrence to which the married couple finds a common enough solution: Paula is made pregnant by the sperm of an anonymous donor and, commonly enough, twins result.

I was glad, personally, that Swift chose to weave his narrative around this relatively ordinary predicament. The children could have been fathered by the other man in a love triangle, a rapist or a member of the royal family. But melodrama is cheap. The truth is usually much less sensational, and so it is here.

And yet, beneath the truth’s simple veneer, complexity swarms, and Swift artfully reminds us that no set of relationships, however loving and secure, is ever free from complication and concealment.

The best part of the narrative is taken up with Paula’s account of her relationship with Mike and of how that relationship was affected by the circumstances of their having children. I was touched by the warmth and affection with which all this is conveyed. Much of it, inevitably, is concerned with family relationships, as if to emphasise ‘the ties that bind’.

In this spirit, Paula is particularly forthcoming when it comes to the details of her — and Mike’s — love life, both before and after they met. As readers of a novel, we are grateful for Paula’s frankness. And yet our knowledge that all this honesty is supposed to be for the benefit of her children may make us uneasy. How much should they have to take on board at one sitting? Will all this information help them come to terms with the revelation about their father, or will it seem too much, its imparting too abrupt (or not abrupt enough)?

Paula’s letter is acutely self-conscious. But her aim is fairly transparent: she wants the children to understand that they are loved and cherished by their mother and father, who love and cherish each other, and that details of biology pale into insignificance beside this. Her whole letter, in fact, is one long exercise in reassurance.

But when it comes to confessions, there is a fine line between reassuring others and reassuring oneself. As we read, we alternate between wondering whether she is making more of the matter than she needs to and worrying whether she is telling them more than they want to hear. (We might also wonder whether, at 16, the children haven’t already outgrown the illusion that truth could ever really be so benign.)

I wouldn’t say that Swift isn’t conscious of all these possibilities; patently he is. He just hasn’t converted this consciousness into a great novel.