British writer Graham Swift has written nine novels, including the Man Booker Prize-winning “Last Orders.” Typically, when an established novelist publishes a story collection, it’s a roundup of shorter narratives that have appeared in magazines and journals over several years, or even decades. Not so with England.
This collection, comprising more than two dozen stories, is the fruitful result of a “sudden return” (as Swift has remarked) to the form he began with as a writer.
You have to be a little patient with this book, because the outstanding stories (several of them anthology-worthy) tend to come later in the collection. The first two, “Going Up in the World” and “Wonders Will Never Cease,” are so motif-driven that they feel airless — too clever by half, as they say in England.
Throughout the book, Swift displays “the artful and inventive way with language that was characteristic of Mr. Wilkinson,” the mysterious neighbor in “Ajax,” a story that unfolds unforgettably. But as the collection gets into its stride this verbal intelligence is matched, then more than matched, by the emotional intelligence at work.
Loss is a recurring theme; widows and widowers are a Swift specialty. Much of the grief is caused by history, with Swift’s imagination ranging from the English Civil War of the 17th century to Britain’s involvement in the War on Terror in the 21st.
Whatever the era, the home front is Swift’s essential territory. “Fusilli” is exemplary in this regard. A man whose son is fighting in Afghanistan discovers that the war invades everywhere, even the pasta aisle of his local supermarket.
The quiet brilliance with which Swift charges domestic detail with meaning and memory puts “Fusilli” into that category of decidedly short stories (it’s six pages long) that can be profitably parsed in a writing workshop.
So these are stories, to use a Harold Brodkey title, almost in a classical mode. You could well imagine Frank O’Connor, one of the great practitioners and theorists of the form, reading “I Live Alone” and seeing in it proof positive of his contention that short stories are utterances of marginalized humanity’s “lonely voice.”
He’d certainly admire the crystallizing power of Swift’s prose. The central character in “I Live Alone” has just found out that he is terminally ill: “He was trying to take in the fact that his life was no longer the indefinite thing of which he’d always been the subject, it was a closed thing, a finite thing, an object.”
But there’s far more life than death in these stories. All 25 are finite things, but the great majority of them are artistically open, even as they turn on a dime — no, make that a sixpence.
Robert Cremins teaches in the Honors College of the University of Houston.