Top positive review
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"Death...was in many ways a great place of shelter. It was life and all its knowledge that was insupportable."
on 25 August 2012
(4.5 stars) In this novel about the many aspects of death, Booker Prize winner Graham Swift offers no humor to leaven the heavy mood or the profound sadness which the novel evokes. In addition, his main character and many peripheral characters are inarticulate people who think in clichés and deal with the everyday challenges of their lives in "tried and true" fashion. These characters have few, if any, thoughts about the larger world, or even a recognition of how they might differ, in the grand scheme of life, from the animals on their farm.
Still, Swift creates a stunning novel which inspires the reader's empathy, and the novel becomes, ultimately, a study of how an unreflective everyman handles the disasters that fate and time deal out to him, and over which he believes he has no control. The novel opens in a caravan park owned by Jack and Ellie Luxton on the Isle of Wight where thirty-nine-year-old Jack, the only remaining member of his family, has just received a letter from the military saying that his younger brother Tom has died in Iraq. Jack's family has never been open with their feelings, and as the author's focus swirls backward, forward, and around again from Jack and Tom's childhood to the present, Swift depicts the family's long history and their values. They have owned their land in Devon since 1614, but after two epidemics - most recently, mad cow disease - they have lost their entire healthy herd, sacrificed to protect the nation as a whole. Jack and his wife have sold the farm and moved to the caravan park which they now own. When Jack goes alone to the mainland to receive Tom's "repatriated" remains and oversee the burial in Marleston, the Devon town where Jack and Tom grew up, he reacts powerfully (and uncharacteristically) to the events.
Through Jack, Swift creates an intimate portrait of people who have rarely had the leisure or the inclination to contemplate life's big questions, and as Jack loses his bearings emotionally, Swift creates an almost symphonic narrative in which many facets of their lives and personalities sing out to create a grand picture of life on a larger scale. The many mysteries which intrigue the reader at the beginning of the novel are resolved as the points of view alternate between Jack and the other characters with whom he comes into contact.
Though this intimate, character-based novel lacks a strong plot, I found it completely absorbing. The author is careful not to wallow in sentimentality, however much the reader may respond emotionally to the characters' well-described predicaments. Mystical moments at the conclusion fit the narrative and reveal Jack's state of mind but leave the novel open to the charge that the conclusion is somewhat artificial in its execution, and Ellie's reasons for her failure to accompany Jack to the funeral are thin, at best. Though some peripheral characters are described in frustrating detail, I found the novel, overall, to be an almost unique literary closeup of the lives of ordinary people dealing with the complex problems of modern life, somehow muddling through even when they do not understand how they got where they are or what choices they may have.