The Light of Day

by Graham Swift
ISBN: 0679312455

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A Review of: The Light of Day
by Gerald Lynch

Graham Swift's novels always titillate and tease, entertain and engage readers with slowly revealed secrets. The deferred, patient and painstaking assemblage of the story has become something of the Swiftian narrative. Most often the revelation of secrets involves a life's shadowy sins brought to light, like a private eye's photograph of an illicit tryst emerging from its swirl of solvents into black-and-white fact. In 1983's Waterland, secrets are told in the sophisticated prose of a history teacher, and his story eventually exposes his idiot brother as a murderer and reveals his own culpability in the decisive act. In the Booker-prize-winning Last Orders (1996), whose form is the novel of voices, secrets of love and betrayal and loyalty are told through various interior monologues whose styles are expertly crafted to the individual speakers (if generally the writing is clipped in a manner that has apparently become Swift's prose of choice). In The Light of Day, life's dark corners are fitfully lit by one first-person narrator, a private investigator whose voice is a literary perfecting of the hardboiled that could mistakenly be read as parody. Here, numerous secrets are brought into the titular light of day: the narrator's, George Webb's, professional transgression that cost him both his job as a police detective and his marriage; his long-kept secret knowledge of his father's infidelity; his daughter Helen's lesbianism; his secretary Rita's fading love for him; and centrally his transgressive love of a married client. Perhaps needless to say, Webb's life is involved in a tangle of deceptions.
These secrets are revealed over the course of one starkly lighted November day in George's life, as he sets out from his London walk-up office to visit both his imprisoned former client and the grave of the husband she impulsively murdered. The husband, Bob Nash, had just returned from the airport. He had dropped off his young lover, Kristina, their houseguest and a refugee thrown up in the dissolution of Yugoslavia. His wife, Sarah, who had hired George the private eye to watch that the young lover left alone, waited for Bob with an expertly cooked supper. Bob walks in the door, a mere shell of the man she loved, and Sarah plunges her knife into his hollowed-out chest.
George justifies his inexplicable fall for the murderer, whose knees first fix his attention when she comes to contract his services (they also decorate the black-and-white cover of the novel), this way: "Besides, you know that moment when a door opens. You enter someone else's life." George is not a ruminating intellectual. He doesn't complain, he doesn't really explain much more than what's given in the preceding quotation. George mulls things over dully, befuddled, bewildered, only sometimes bemused. Like a bad detective, he presents his readers with the evidence in seemingly random bits and pieces (actually, the pretext of the novel is that unliterary George is writing for his imprisoned beloved, who was a teacher before she became a murderer). Readers must work to make the story whole. They will never succeed, of course, at least not with regard to such elements of stories and crimes as comprehensible motivation. The story no more reaches comfortable closure than the murder case gets satisfyingly closed.
George, whose associating consciousness is not revealed in the full-flowing Joycean stream, seems to meander at times. He begins many of the sixty-seven short chapters (a Swiftian feature) in non-sequitur medias res, in full flight of thought (never fleshed out) or event (never fully laid out), and the patient reader must wait for signification and sense to emerge slowly. This technique of each chapter's unfolding can be seen as a reflection in small of the circuitous puzzling out of the whole novel (another Swiftian feature). I don't mind having to flip back to reread because only at a later point have I become aware of the relevance of the earlier material. Other readers might find this irritating. No real reader should complain when the writing is Graham Swift's. We should be grateful for the pleasures his prose delivers again and again. We should marvel at the narrative style he has mastered and made his own. Swift has always taken writerly risks, and the rewards are always the reader's.
But the title of this novel signifies more than Swift's lacunal narrative technique and the metaphor of secrets revealed. The Light of Day is resplendent with light, from the sure shaft of its exploration of the entangled interdependence of character and circumstance, to the dazzle of Swift's porous prose, to the text's steadily unobtrusive working of metaphors of illumination, to such themes as the enduring hope of human love after a dark night (or even a bright day) of the soul. George Webb arrives at the end of his starkly lighted November day and story still hoping to prove wrong the truism that-as another George (Harrison) titled his first solo album-All Things Must Pass. Denying the inevitable diminishment of the hot flash of love's lightning bolt for the ill-starred lovers entering their twilight time, George bears witness to the light: "But it doesn't fade. It's not true what they say, that it fades, it cools with the years. It grows, it blooms, the less time that's left. Eight, nine years How long do we have? Things get more precious, not less. That's one thing I've learnt. And what we have here inside us we might never know, there's no detecting it. That's another thing I've learnt."

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