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the complete review - fiction
The Light of Day
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B : fine character portrait, but less than compelling story (both in terms of style and content)
See our review for fuller assessment.
|London Rev. of Books
|The LA Times
|The New Republic
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|The New Yorker
|San Francisco Chronicle
|Sydney Morning Herald
No consensus -- and lots and lots of comparisons to his earlier novels
From the Reviews:
- "Swift's language is almost entirely free of what you might, crudely, call poeticisms, but his compositional method is, I think, exactly that of a poet. He uses key phrases, repeated and reworked across tens of pages, as hinges between situations and meanings. He sets up antiphonies and echoes; rhymes, if you like, between characters and relationships. The themes -- captivity, reciprocity, what binds people to one another and what isolates them, the idea of civilisation, the idea of loss -- resonate through situation after situation. Comparisons are odorous, but this has a whiff of John Donne." - Sam Leith, Daily Telegraph
- "Graham Swift may not be Grinling Gibbons, but he is a consummate joiner. His books fit together as well as a perfectly crafted bevelled halving. (...) I shall remember the consummate construction of The Light of Day, but the author never developed any of the characters or made them interesting." - A.N. Wilson, Evening Standard
- "Die Dezenz dieses Erzählens, die Andeutungskunst, ist ebenso glänzend wie beglückend: Graham Swift stößt in menschliche Zwischenräume vor, in die Zwischenreiche zwischen Affekt und Vernunft, erhellt sie blitzartig und lässt sie dann wieder im Dunkeln liegen, wohlwissend, dass alles andere in peinlichen Gefühlskitsch münden würde." - Christoph Schröder, Frankfurter Rundschau
- "The Light of Day has a brilliantly slow, precise, careful structure, covering "every hour, every minute, every detail" of its case with as much control as it lays out its geography and deals with its parts of speech." - Hermione Lee, The Guardian
- "The Light of Day is as close to seeming spoken as any novel I have read. It dares the ordinariness of flat, repetitious, unliterate narration. (...) Swift's dare is worth the risks, however. The book's pleasures, slowly coddled, take time to mature, but in the process they teach you the art of reading slowly and carefully, of maturing with the story." - James Wood, London Review of Books
- "They are intriguing themes, but in the end not particularly revelatory. Swift's characters don't seek personal redemption so much as a state of perseverance. They muddle along overcoming crises large and small, both of their own making and out of their control. They cling tenaciously to the faults and virtues that make them who they are, and that help them ride out what storms may come." - Scott Martelle, The Los Angeles Times
- "The novel's exasperating flatness is entirely at odds with Swift's previous work (...) More likely, though, it is not the form that has failed Swift, but he who has inadequately risen to its challenge." - Ruth Franklin, The New Republic
- "If there is a problem with Swift's novel it is the question of how to read it. (...) It does give one pause. Can he now have descended to so little, so melodramatic a tale ?" - Anita Desai, The New York Review of Books
- "The mood and tone of the book are decidedly Larkinesque: a fog of disappointment and regret wafts over the characters, muffling their actions and suffocating their dreams. The book is meticulously crafted, deftly moving back and forth in time to build suspense, but there is something lugubrious and solipsistic about its delivery." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "Swift manages this patterning of motifs with exquisite economy, and the suggestion of lives held in check makes the book feel as English as marmalade. But the downside to this suppressed emotion is a want of dramatic urgency. (...) It is difficult to reconcile the fact of so much writerly achievement with the feeling that the novel is somewhat underpowered. (...) Yet in cleaving to this scrupulous technique, he has skimped on the more obvious satisfactions of excitement and suspense." - Anthony Quinn, The New York Times Book Review
- "(T)he meandering nature of the detective’s narration seems coy and artificial, and too often our involvement is interrupted by a flicker of impatience." - The New Yorker
- "In this case, though, low key doesn't mean low risk. In its chosen sober manner, The Light of Day offers a master class in narrative. Everything is kept short -- sentences, paragraphs, subsections and chapters (nearly 70 of them) -- but every element comes together. Information is delivered in drips rather than surges and a number of interlocking stories are bound together, strand by strand." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer
- "What's a civilization for ? That's the question at the heart of Graham Swift's highly controlled, parsimonious but never quite bleak new novel" - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Swift is good on the mechanics of infidelity and the virus of deceit and he ticks all the right psychological boxes. But for me the main problem is with the language. The novel doesn’t sing, but shuffles along from verbless sentence to verbless sentence." - Sebastian Shakespeare, The Spectator
- "If the story is conventional, its telling is anything but. Swift consistently uses complex and unconventional narrative strategies to explore his grand themes of the past's encroachment on the present and the link between private stories and public histories. (....) This is beautifully crafted fiction: profound, elliptical in purpose and addressing the big issues with understated elegance." - Liam Davison, Sydney Morning Herald
- "(T)his is a novel brought steaming to the table whose bones, mysteriously, turn out to have been picked almost dry. (...) Necessarily in thrall to George's narrative voice, The Light of Day never really escapes from its chronic introversion, the sense of everything -- plot, pace, minor character cameos -- being stretched a little too thin. Even at 240 pages, this is a very difficult book to read." - D.J.Taylor, Times Literary Supplement
- "Nichts ist Das helle Licht des Tages weniger als ein Whodunit. (...) Gelegentlich wird so aus einer von alltäglichen Formulierungen gespeisten Prosa Lyrik, und fast unmerklich gerät man in ihren Sog." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Light of Day is presented in short chapters (67 of them), short paragraphs, short sentences.
The style is jerky and questioning; a typical section going:
She took it hard, I know, I can guess.
If Helen had never --
The narrator is George Webb, and the story covers just a single day in his life -- but in reminiscing and wondering (about what might have been and what the future might hold), George repeatedly loops forward and back and offers a much larger tale.
But could she blame him -- she blame him ?
And how must it feel ?
Your father, your mother: to lose both.
She should take it hard.
Webb is a former policeman who lost his job -- a small disgrace -- and also his wife.
For several years now he has worked as a private investigator.
One case, in particular, got to him.
The weight of it on him is especially clear on this day, but eventually it becomes obvious that Webb carries it with him every day.
"Two years ago and a little more" Sarah Nash came to his offices.
Her husband, Bob, had been having an affair with a Croatian refugee they had taken in, Kristina Lazic, and while Bob had agreed to break it off and send Kristina home his wife wanted someone to make sure that the girl actually did get on the plane and leave.
That, simply, was Webb's assignment.
Webb allows this story to unfold slowly, returning to it again and again (and interspersing it with other bits of background and information) before finally revealing everything that happened.
"So much of it I've had to piece together gradually", Webb notes midway through the book, and he doesn't make it any easier for the reader.
As in real life, aspects of what happened become clear before the reasons behind them are fully understood; still, it can be an annoying habit when information that the narrator has is withheld and only conveyed in such a roundabout manner.
Sarah is in jail, her husband dead.
In fact, the day Webb tells his story on is the second anniversary of Bob Nash's murder.
Coincidentally, it is also visiting day at the prison, and Webb's two tasks of the day are to visit Nash's grave and then imprisoned Sarah.
As he moves through the day Webb reflects on his own life, and especially on his relationships: the failure of his marriage, the somewhat surprising relationship that has developed with his daughter (who, however, repeatedly turns out not to be quite the person Webb thinks she is), his father (who unintentionally burdened him with a secret that also weighed heavily on him), and his assistant, Rita, who, he is certain, is on the verge of leaving him.
The most significant relationship turns out to be the one that has developed between him and Sarah.
It offers a promise that can only be found in the future, something literally to look forward to, allowing him release from a past of failures and things gone wrong.
Ironically, he feels at least in part responsible for Sarah's act -- the very act that both freed her for him (by ridding her of her husband) and made her once again unattainable.
Over and over Webb wonders: what if ? in what seems a lifetime of what ifs.
Webb is an odd narrator, both in his almost coy presentation of the facts and his constant allowing for all possibilities: it is an account full of questions, but they are questions more of exploration than of doubt.
Webb hasn't entirely made peace with a world that is ambiguous and haphazard, but he certainly recognises it as such.
Odd, too, is the question of how reliable a narrator he is: a private investigator who is supposed to be observant, remaining outside the action (something he ultimately couldn't do, not as policeman and not as a P.I.).
His daughter tells him:
"You're a detective, Dad.
But you don't see things.
You don't notice things."
But one of the first things his future wife said to him was: "You notice things."
He recalls both observations.
And he recognises that they're both right: he does pick up on little things, does see and notice and overhear.
But he never gets it right: he overhears his father and it's something he can never handle.
He reacts badly in a interviewing some suspects.
He turns around too late after finishing his job for Sarah.
Now, however, he needs only look ahead.
It's something to hold onto -- though one wonders if the hoped for "light of day" will ever come for him.
Chances are, one surely expects, that he gets it wrong again.
Swift has written an evocative account.
Webb is a richly-imagined character: the pieces fit together to create this whole, a convincing portrait.
But the presentation -- the constant switching back and forth, the short sentences -- can be exhausting.
It perhaps reflects how someone might live a day, but it's not entirely successful, and the single-day framework doesn't fully justify itself.
And the suspense -- the what, and then the why -- are less than ideally built up too, making the book less gripping than it might have been.
Still, Swift manages a lot here, and it's an interesting experiment: a solid read and some deft characterization (managed in a variety of ways).
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The Light of Day:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction under review
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About the Author:
British author Graham Swift was born in 1949.
His works have won numerous literary prizes, including the Booker.
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© 2003-2010 the complete review
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