An academic sits alone in his college room thinking about the people he has lost. Powerful memories crowd in on him - childhood days in Paris; his exuberant, glamorous mother; his mysterious father; and the brash young American who becomes his step-father. Mingled with this emerges a tender portrait of his relationship with his actress wife. Ever After is a poignant elegy to lost faith and lost hope. It is also a powerful affirmation of love.
This is my first Graham Swift novel. I knew nothing about the author until I was
We walk, skirting carpets of greensward, by the willow-hung, punt-cluttered river. The scene is a vernal idyll. This is the time of year when academic cussedness dictates that the youth of the university should shut itself away to swot for exams, just when its young blood should be pulsing to the joys of spring; and when the youth of the university naturally defies the injunction. There is a general sprawling on grass; couples fondling; flimsy attire; river-borne frivolity.Swift definitely looks at common objects and events with different eyes. Or rather, the main character, professor Bill Unwin does. This man, who is past his prime, has secluded himself from the world in an unnamed college (I think Cambridge), after losing his parents and his wife, the famous actress Ruth Unwin. After a suicide attempt, he now recollects the time spent with his father, his mother, his step-father and his wife, and tries to find his own identity in a world where nobody is connected to him.
Bill Unwin is not a likeable character for the whole first half of the book. He is wry, cynical and boastful - perfectly characterized as a professor, in fact. He even sounds artificial. His recollections of the past are always presented through the lens of idealized childhood, for all the 'woe is me' he feels entitled to. I mean, the man constantly compares himself to Hamlet. I really loved the references, but it is over the top. When his story unravels, he lets us see his grief, raw and implacable, to the point of leading him to suicide. He is but another sad, lonely man, who puts on an aloof mask to endure life. Ayone who has lost someone will recognize that feeling, and will want to tell Bill that it gets better, that the grief will always be there but that you eventually learn to corral it.
His story is interwoven with that of Matthew Pearce, a 19th century man who had a crisis of faith due to finding an ichthyosaur and reading On the Origin of Species. As a man who grew up believing the Bible word for word, the concept of evolution shatters his worldview. His crisis of faith forces him to abandon his family, since he had been married to the daughter of a Rector. Thus, he represents another kind of loss, enabling Swift to explore a different kind of grief and loneliness. And it has the added layer of being a tale within a tale, since it is the fictionalized version of Matthew's life as told by Bill, based on Matthew's Notebooks, which have always been in Bill's family. Some of the entries are included, further complicating the non-linear narrative.
All in all, I liked Ever After, but I didn't love it. It is powerful and intelligent, but I was left with a sense of disconnect. It is maybe due to the ending, which lacks in hope, or to the broaching of so many topics, or to the (I want to think purposefully) artificiality of the voice. I'll definitely read more by Swift, but I suspect that, although it is good, Ever After is not his best.