Complex and layered, this book is no easy read. It’s a powerful story that forces you to concentrate, but it’s worth the effort. Narrating in present day, Tom Crick tells the story of his family and his rural community in the Fens (the Eastern part of Britain), moving back and forth between time periods from the 1700’s to the late 1900’s where he is the local history teacher. The audience of his narration is his high school students (though it’s also us, the readers), to whom he is teaching history by telling the story of their community and its people, along with the stories he supposed to be teaching, such as the French Revolution. We find out about the early Fens settlers, the family of brewers, the constant drainage of the waterlogged Fens which turns out to be extremely fertile farmland due to the silt, we learn about the narrator’s childhood, the secrets he’s lived with, and ultimately about his current situation–he’s being fired, the history department is shutting down, and his wife tried to steal a baby. But to explain his current predicament, he must go back, all the way back to the founding of their area. Because to explain the events of the present, one must go back to the events which led to the present. Thus, history.
Swift gets a bit wordy and dramatic– sometimes his ‘asides’ are pages long–but his descriptions of the Fens ecosystem are detailed enough to help me feel the dampness and hear the constant pumping of water to dry out the land. It’s an area I knew little about, and I leave the novel with a new understanding of its climate and geography. (fiction)