Review

Tomorrow

by Graham Swift

Tolstoy’s novel ANNA KARENINA begins with the famous
aphorism: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family
is unhappy in its own way.” Man Booker Prize winner Graham
Swift’s latest work explores the challenge one family faces
in maintaining its happiness when faced with the disclosure of a
troubling family secret.

In the early morning hours of June 17, 1995, Paula Hook lies awake
in her comfortable, upper middle class London home next to her
husband Mike. She is a successful art dealer, and he is the owner
of a company that publishes a popular science magazine. Their
twins, Kate and Nick, have celebrated their 16th birthdays only a
week earlier, and the parents have chosen this date to reveal a
secret they believe may rock the foundation of their up-to-now
idyllic lives and even test the ability of this family to
survive.

Through the night, Paula ruminates on the history of her
relationship with Mike, from their first meeting as college
students in the sexually-charged atmosphere of the mid-1960s to
this night. Her recollections expand outward to encompass their
families: her relationship with her father, a judge with a
propensity for marrying women half his age, and Mike’s
relationship with his, who had been incarcerated in a German POW
camp at the time of Mike’s birth in January 1945. And in her
nighttime reverie she speaks directly to her children, recalling
incidents from their childhood and imagining how the knowledge
they’re about to gain will affect them as they become
adults.

Like his British contemporaries Ian McEwan (SATURDAY) and Jim Crace
(BEING DEAD), Swift demonstrates considerable skill expanding a
simple premise --- in this case, a woman lying in bed reflecting on
almost 30 years of her relationship with her husband and children
--- and having it ripple outward to embrace a small world.

Throughout her account of the family’s history, Paula injects
nuggets of wisdom about family life: from the perils that lie in
wait for even the most seemingly solid of relationships
(“Happiness, yes, families, yes --- but the two together,
forget it. The very idea is a fantasy from which we all have to
wake up sooner or later.”), to the secrets upon which those
relationships sometimes are founded (“But all houses,
perhaps, all couples, all families have a life you never
see.”). Although Mike is the scientist in the family (he
abandoned a career as a researcher of mollusks to enter the
publishing business), one senses that Paula is placing family life
under the microscope, analyzing it as dispassionately as one would
in a laboratory experiment.

The most disappointing shortcoming of TOMORROW is that the event
that preoccupies Paula’s insomniac recollections is, in the
end, too slight to bear the emotional weight she attaches to it.
Mike and Paula have decided years earlier that they’ll reveal
the secret exactly one week after the twins’ 16th birthday,
and yet the decision to do so doesn’t seem to have been
fraught with any significant conflict or tension. In an almost
obsessive fashion, Paula circles back to what awaits Mike and the
children when they awake. At one point she describes it as
“monstrous,” at another “outrageous,” even
going so far as to describe the day as one “that will change
all our lives.” If a buildup of this magnitude is offered,
one had better be fairly certain that the payoff is earned. Swift
doesn’t deliver in this instance, and his novel suffers in
the end from that failure.

And yet, despite this flaw, TOMORROW attains a certain modest
success as an elegant exploration of the fragility of love and the
bonds that hold families together. Swift demonstrates his customary
economy of language, and Paula’s elegaic tone is aptly suited
for what amounts to a bedtime story delivered to three people soon
to awake from their slumber to a new and changed world.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on January 23, 2011

Tomorrow
by Graham Swift

  • Publication Date: September 11, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0307266907
  • ISBN-13: 9780307266903