Sunday, 16 October 2011
Shuttlecock - Graham Swift
Prentis is a minor civil servant in an office where dead cases are archived. He envies his boss his power and his father his status as a wartime hero. His wife and two children suffer the brunt of his dissatisfaction as he exercises his power over them, even when he knows that what he is doing is wrong.
This he writes down in a form of confessional, which begins with a memory he has of a pet hamster from his youth. "You see, I used to torment my hamster. I was cruel to Sammy. It wasn't a case of wanting to play with him, or train him, or study how he behaved. I tortured him." He is trying to understand himself. Why was it that while he tortured Sammy he was a good son to his parents but before Sammy arrived on the scene and after he died he was difficult. Why?
He is also trying to understand his father, a decorated war hero who was dropped behind enemy lines and wrote "Shuttlecock", a popular autobiographical version of his wartime exploits. "But, having a hero for a father - even having a father who isn't a hero but who works in a plush office and plays golf on Sundays with a little retinue of worshippers - all this is bad news if you're an only son." Soon after the death of his mother his father stopped talking. Now he visits him in a psychiatric hospital twice a week.
His boss Quinn has always seemed to dislike him, and sometimes seemed to be playing games with him. When Quinn tells him that he is retiring soon and that Prentis will fill his role he doesn't know whether to believe him or not. He is also unsure of what to do about the files that seem to have gone missing and the increasingly eccentric requests for files from Quinn.
Has his father escaped into silence as he once escaped the Nazis? Does Quinn know something? What is in the missing files?
This book asks questions of what lies behind normal life. "Do civilized instincts persist in war, or does civilized life veil the instincts of war?" Do we all need to exercise power over someone, or something in order to feel fulfilled?
This is a metaphorical detective story. At times it generates a sense of foreboding as if something terrible is sure to happen. It moves confidently between office, home and war and creates memorable characters. Descriptions of the tensions of Tube travel and dysfunctional father/son relationships are uneasily convincing.
Swift certainly deserved his place in the much referenced Granta list of The Best of Young British Novelists in 1983, a place he has justified many times since.