Wednesday 22 May 2019

Review by Robert Richardson of "The Light of Day" by Graham Swift

By producing a literary novel in which the main character and narrator, George Webb, is a private detective, Graham Swift with The Light of Day sets up a relationship to the genre of crime writing. He is, though, not aiming at satire or parody, but an exploration of knowing and understanding. Swift’s imagination and the sheer quality of his writing achieve what seems, at times, to be an extended prose poem. His technique is to drip-feed information to the reader, to provide an experience of gradually making sense after an initial ignorance, and narrative description is melded with his own brand of stream of consciousness recollection.

As with other Swift novels, a complex, elliptical structure hinges on a single day: the second anniversary of when Sarah Nash, one of George’s clients, murdered her husband. George, in love with Sarah and regularly visiting her in prison, has, at her request, agreed to put flowers on the grave. We accompany him as he does this. It is followed by a visit to Sarah and a journey back to his office that includes stopping at the street of Sarah’s former house, where the murder took place. Interspersed with this are chapters that incorporate a non-linear collage of memories consisting of his encounters with Sarah, and the day of the murder, when he was employed by her to follow, secretly, her husband, Bob, and his Croatian lover, Kristina, to Heathrow, from where Kristina will be returning to her own country. It is an agreed “concession” that Bob may accompany Kristina before the marriage resumes. George is to report back to Sarah that Kristina does indeed leave. This he confirms by phone, and we are told that Sarah is preparing to welcome Bob home by cooking their favourite meal. The “hook” is to find out what occurred for her to end up in prison, since the meal was unserved and instead she stabbed her husband to death.

George also thinks of other, older, memories: his ex-wife and their daughter; his parents and childhood; and events leading to his dismissal from the police. Through these accretions of memory, Swift skilfully portrays George’s life, to be offset against the extreme and catastrophic event and effects of the murder. The Swift trademark of the family secret also appears and involves George’s father. 

Swift’s presentation of George’s voice is pitch-perfect, sympathetically adopting the persona of a basically decent man, though not without faults. His police background gives him resilience, but he also has the insecurity, sometimes present in the lower middle class, of being aware that he lacks a satisfactory level of formal education. He adopts self-improvement that takes the form of learning gourmet cooking, and on his prison visits he takes writing for Sarah, who had worked as a college lecturer, to correct. This has a psychological resonance with regard to their relationship, which is all the more powerful for not being analysed. 

A detective is concerned with evidence, but Swift shows that this is a partial and inadequate summation of experience, and often we cannot account for the motivations of others beyond our own speculations. His perceptions have a downbeat numbness, but there is some hope in George’s commitment, bordering on devotion, to Sarah, which, given the little contact they had before the murder and her imprisonment, approaches the inexplicable and escapes explanations by the merely factual. 

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). He has graphic artworks in collections of the British Museum and the Australian National Gallery. In 2018, he had a solo exhibition of photographs, Luz Brilhante, at the Museu Municipal, one of the leading museums in Faro, Portugal. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

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