Waterland is a novel about telling stories. In fact it is a story, or a sequence of stories, told by a middle-aged history teacher called Tom Crick. He wants to tell the story of his life because on a basic level he needs to, but also because he feels his students need reminding that an understanding of the past is just as important as a preoccupation with the present and the future.
What’s interesting about Waterland is its central protagonist’s – and by extension Swift’s – awareness of the futility of his endeavour, which yet does not alter his commitment. One sentence conveys this with admirable succinctness: ‘History is that impossible thing: the attempt to give an account, with incomplete knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge.’
Waterland is a serious, seriously ambitious book. It tells us that we are an inherently curious species, and that history is no more and no less than the result of the instinct to ask ‘why’. History is about people rather than events, and whatever may be happening ‘on the world stage’ – our narrator’s childhood takes place during the Second World War, the ‘present’ is in the midst of the Cold War – life continues. Many many small, personal stories, interweave with a global narrative. Minor actions in one moment echo loudly decades later.
This novel is sad and beset with tragedy, which fits with Tom’s (Swift’s?) assertion that ‘History begins only at the point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret’. It is deeply imbued with the sights, smells and feelings of its principal location: the Fens, north of Cambridge and south of Lincoln, and Swift certainly makes this flat, featureless, oozing landscape come to life.
And yet Waterland is also rather claustrophobic: as Swift notes in the author’s introduction written to celebrate the novel’s 25th anniversary ‘Waterland is set where we’re all set, in our own heads’. There are multiple plotlines, some more ‘obviously’ historic (e.g. the story of Crick’s distant ancestors, who built the canals and breweries of the region), some still vivid memories (starting with a boy found drowned, when our narrator was a teenager) and some very recent (the disintegration of a marriage, the end of a career).
But despite this superfluity of action, I think I found Waterland a little stifling: it is evocative, tightly controlled and undoubtedly impressive, but – like Tom Crick – it is excessively preoccupied with unpacking, turning over and exploring a single set of questions, all versions of: why is a sense of history important?