Books

Graham Swift masterfully returns to the short story

“England and Other Stories” by Graham Swift (Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $25.95)

There is a moment that changes everything. An epiphany. A belligerency. An accident. An accomplishment.

As a literary form, the short story shines brightest when it pivots on such a moment, when a character’s life catches fire or fizzles out through the sheer force of circumstance.

Infidelity. True love. Terror from the past. Ennui from the present. These realities haunt the chorus of happy and damaged souls in Graham Swift’s first collection of short stories in nearly 30 years.

The long hiatus proves puzzling when we consider that Swift, winner of the Man Booker Prize for his brilliant novel “Last Orders,” is so adept at portraying in laconic, epigrammatic prose the wonder and surprise of the people of England, the country he clearly loves.

In this collection of 25 stories, he explores a vulnerable geography of the heart from Exmoor to Yorkshire, from the 1600s to the present-day. He balances the familiar with the foreign, the numinous with the mundane. And he rarely disappoints.

What makes Swift’s work succeed so beautifully – from the four-page sketch to the fuller, 20-page story – is the sustaining power of voice.

“When I was a small boy we had a neighbor called Mr. Wilkinson, who was a weirdo. He must be long gone now, but I’ve often wondered what became of him. I was his undoing”

Or:

“He stood by the opened kitchen drawer. It was a warm April afternoon. He’d come home from school meaning to take the knife at some point before the following morning and hadn’t thought that his best chance might be straight away. The clock on the microwave said 4:25. His mother was in her bedroom with her boyfriend Wes. He could hear them, they were loud enough.”

And what undergirds each distinctive voice is the subtle interweaving of themes that seems, if not precisely planned, then expertly pieced together in the making of this memorable book. The quest for identity and destiny flows effortlessly from story to story, leitmotifs of passion and longing and loss linking arms to embrace one compelling facet of the human condition after another.

And always the moment makes the difference.

In “Knife,” the young boy in the kitchen contemplates picking up the knife to dispatch his mother’s boyfriend whom he detests. “He understood that at this moment, though he was only twelve, he had about as much power in the world as he would ever have. He understood it almost painfully now. At twelve, you could not be held responsible even if you were.”

The short story may still be the step-child of contemporary fiction, not recognized by the Man Booker Prize, overshadowed by the novel and its broader aspirations. But in the hands of a master like Swift, the genre redeems its image: Ordinary people, ordinary aims; everything changing in the moment.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or adavenport@wichitaeagle.com.

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