The Perils of Paula

It is a universally recognized truth that contemporary fiction would begin with some intriguing or momentous issue, then promptly switch focus into another time frame.

For instance: “You’re asleep, my angels, I assume. So, to my amazement, is your father, like a man finding it in him to sleep on the night of his execution.” Once this opening is given a touch more development, indeed we are borne ceaselessly back into the past.

Another truth of universal recognition is that writers—particularly English writers (and some American suspense writers)—enjoy working within the confines of a particular span of time, a day, a week, a month, against which is heard ticking (no quartz movements, please) a clock that reminds us of the inexorable passing of time. Virginia Woolf, in “Mrs. Dalloway” comes to mind as well as Michael Cunningham’s tip of the literary hat to Mrs. Woolf with “The Hours.” So too of recent memory is Ian McEwen’s “Saturday.” No less do readers enjoy reading “ticking clock” stories.

Such readers will be, as I was, intrigued by the news that Graham Swift’s latest from Knopf, “Tomorrow,” is such a work, beginning with the opening set forth above, the first-person concerns of Paula Hook. Her concerns have to do with her and her husband Michael’s twins, Kate and Nick, just a week past their sixteenth birthday.

Just like a man to sleep so soundly on such a momentous eve before the storm Paula and Mike are to set on the twins. No, no; nothing so dramatically bland as the civil, oh, so genteel professional class couple’s decision to divorce, go their separate ways. Nor indeed that either Paula or Michael have become aware of some major illness.

Graham Swift is best known in this country for his Booker-Prize-winning novel, “Last Orders,” yet another work that plays out against a brief passage of time, the length of time, in fact wherein a group of drinking buddies, all veterans of World War II, carry out the final wishes of their comrade who has died and has asked his surviving close friends to scatter his ashes in the sea off the East Coast. While the friends set forth on their sentimental journey with the funerary urn in tow, we are given the luxury of their thoughts and memories, as well as their having to retrace their steps back to a pub where, after several rounds, they have left the urn. English readers will recognize the play on words of the title: “Last orders” is shouted out in pubs with the same intent as “final round” or “last round” in American watering holes.

Swift is also known for the novel “Waterland,” an intense, first-person reflection of a schoolteacher on the east coast of England. To an undeserved lesser extent, he is known for two collections of short stories, each volume of which has a high percentage of keepers.

In short, Swift is a prolific and gifted writer, doing for the English middle classes much of what Jim Harrison does for what I like to think of as the American at-risk classes hovering on both sides of the middle class. His characters are nuanced, fair, and empathetic. His stories, if reduced to “TV Guide” one-liner synopses, would sound as though he were lacking some basic understanding of Aristotelian rules for drama.

Fortunately for us, his seeming lack of dramatic combustion is quickly overcome by the concerns of believable people caught up in believably human dilemma.

As we begin to wonder what secret Michael Hook is going to deliver to his sixteen-year-olds that will, Paula worries, effectively end their sense of childhood, Swift casually knocks away each successive suspicion we bring to the table.

These suspicions are interspersed with suitable background and tension to bring us up to speed on the families of each. Paula is the daughter of Douglas Campbell, proudly Scottish, as the name suggests, but not the haggis and kilt and skeandoo Scottish, rather a noted high court justice. Michael is the son of working-class industrialists, who has launched himself as a scientist with a profound interest in mollusks. Just short of his Ph.D., Michael’s career takes a swerve from science to publishing; he becomes the successful editor of a publishing house that for American audiences could be likened to “National Geographic.” Paula, before and after her children are borne to term, is an enormously successful art critic.

How could such matters produce the tension, anticipation, and suspense required to populate a novel, even as relatively short and uncomplicated a one as this?

Leave it to Graham Swift. Leave it also to a cat named Otis (after Otis Redding), a veterinarian, a few of Mr. Justice Campbell’s ex-wives, and the seesaw of time, from present to past, as Paula considers options, recalls the college years she shared with the man she knew she wanted more or less from their first date, but actually before even that moment.

All this being said, and the literary hat firmly tipped to Swift, this is not his strongest work to date (“Last Orders” still rules) and in fact there are one or two places toward the three-quarters mark where you will be tempted to set the work down for good. But the moment you do, the characters begin weighing in on you; they are so damned nice that you don’t want to disappoint them.

By a process of elimination, you’ll also probably guess what it is Michael is to tell Kate and Nick “tomorrow,” and wonder how a novel could use this as a fulcrum. For all Paula gets to be a bit of a digressing narrator, her very sincerity will get to you and you will accept with eagerness the belief that none of this is artifice. Paula and Michael sincerely wanted children; they have been good, considerate parents.

“[Y]our dad and I, born neatly in 1945, may have been put down in the best slot history has to offer,” Paula says. And so why should we feel—why should we bother to feel—angst for them or for Kate and Nick?

Particularly why, when we are left before Michael awakens, prepares breakfast for the family, and then tells them what has been elected to be a part of their heritage?

Simple enough for this reader: We care because, at the end, we sense the enormous risk Graham Swift has taken. He has told a remarkable love story. Michael and the kids and their grandparents lurk about in the background, sometimes Shakespeare’s “waking shadows.” What brings the all to the front of the stage for the final bow is a quality Swift shares with the aforementioned Jim Harrison: He does women characters with the verve and dimension they deserve.

So this becomes a neat collaboration between Paula Hook and Graham Swift.