Sunday, September 16, 2007

'Tomorrow' comes, and it disappoints

Paula Hook, an art dealer married to a biologist, cannot get herself to sleep on the night of June 16, 1995. She and her husband are to reveal a terrible secret to their teenage twins, Kate and Nick, the next day, exactly a week after the twins' 16th birthday. Paula (perhaps in her thoughts, perhaps by way of writing) begins to address the twins and prepare the ground for what unbearable revelations her husband is going to bring their way in the morning, that is, tomorrow. Hence the title.

Graham Swift (pictured) is the writer of such robust novels as The Last Orders (which won the Booker prize) and The Light of Day. Here, however, he slips into a sort of self-serving trance, from which escape proves impossible. Paula, as the mother who must ready her children for secrets that involve them intimately, stretches her story to the breaking point. For a novelist, this may be necessary, required as he is to maintain narrative tension. But as a purely human piece of writing, Tomorrow fails.

Paula badgers on, discussing grandparents and cats and vets, even as we wonder if she could really be mother to these kids whose life she is all set to topple. Every time there is the hint of a shocker ("No, I've counted lots of things, but I never thought I'd become so keenly involved in counting sperm"), she deflates it and digresses. One almost wishes to wring her neck and force her to spill the beans, if not for the reader's sake (which is understandable), then for her children's.

I couldn't help thinking that if I happened to be one of Paula's kids reading her testimony, I would happily jump to the last pages to know what was happening. The announcement, when it comes, is not all that it is cracked up to be. And therein lies a lethal flaw at this novel's heart: too great a buildup for too soft a disclosure.

For a first-time writer, Tomorrow may have been a pardonable exercise; but from Swift, it is no less than tragic.

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From St. Petersburg Times

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