by Graham Swift
Waterland is an inventive novel that manages to make a palette of seemingly unpromising locales and themes into something more than the sum of its parts. Loosely speaking, Waterland is a work of historical fiction or historical meta-fiction, centered around the history of an area of the East Anglia Fens/Wetlands. Tom Crick, the narrator, is a history teacher on the edge of (forced) retirement. He is told by the headmaster that history is being phased out as a separate department, and almost simultaneously his wife is arrested for attempting to steal a baby. These events spur a series of recollections about his personal history and the history of Waterland, which he in turn describes to his class of high school students, a last act of defiance that forms most of the "action" of the present time of the plot.
Wikipedia identifies Waterland as strongly affiliated with "New Historicism," which was a cross-discipline movement to use literature to illuminate history and vice versa. Waterland achieves both those goals, seemingly effortlessly, while keeping Waterland well within the heartland of the tradition of English fiction, with sex, death and madness along for the ride. There is a familiarity about the themes and events of Waterland that serve to mask the theory behind, the literary equivalent of a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.
In 1983 the meta-historical novel barely existed, and it is easy to see why this early example found such a receptive audience,