Silt life


Tom Crick is in trouble. His wife has committed a miserable and foolish crime: precipitated by events long past; precipitating Crick's dismissal from his post as a history teacher. The school's headmaster has finally been given the excuse to downsize humanities in favour of the sciences, and Crick's backlash is the generation-spanning tapestry of Waterland. Where scientific principles might never have helped him, Crick develops his own view of progress and the advancement of time: civilization, and the existence of each civilized man, is nothing more than the excavation of accumulated silt, the continuous fight against nature to prevent dirt from blocking life, love and intelligent thought.

Supporting this gloomy but inevitable conclusion are the multiple strands of Crick's family history, the history and development of the fenland where his and his wife's families have lived for generations, and even the course of English and world histories. Swift, narrating as Crick, develops themes on business big and small, transport and the folly of great schemes into a crescendo that focus history on the single act of Crick's wife, and the parallel events some twenty years ago involving Crick's educationally subnormal brother.

A seamless mixture of human endeavour on both the large and small scale, Waterland is occasionally let down by the indeterminacy of one of its major conceits: to whom is Crick preaching his message? To the converted? The unconverted? The eternally apostate? To bring this in line with the ultimate recipients of the speech---children, dear children---Swift has had to execute appropriately quick turnarounds, and it is here that the story hiccups. But this is a minor fault, observed retrospectively, and for most of the novel the reader is drawn inexorably, like mud down the Ouse to the open sea, to a bleak, lonely and watery conclusion.