A Long Night's Journey
By Graham Swift
Knopf. 255 pp. $23.95
For the second time this year, a Booker Prize winner has given us a short novel about a single night in bed. In June, Ian McEwan described an awkward honeymoon on Chesil Beach. And now Graham Swift wants to keep us awake with Tomorrow, a monologue in which a mother lies next to her husband, worrying about a revelation that will soon alter their lives. Superficially, both novels are about sex in the 1960s: for McEwan, really bad sex, and for Swift, really good sex. But while McEwan makes us cringe at his careful analysis of two nervous virgins, Swift makes us cringe for entirely different reasons.
Tomorrow opens in the anxious hours of a midsummer's night in 1995. Paula Hook, an art dealer in London, is obsessing over the horrible news that she and her husband will reveal to their 16-year-old twins in the morning: "You're asleep, my angels," she says. "So, to my amazement and relief, is your father, like a man finding it in him to sleep on the eve of his execution."
What an exquisitely suspenseful introduction, and Graham ratchets up our apprehension with each paragraph. Since Nick and Kate were born, Paula and her husband have been dreading this day. Dishes from the "terminal supper" of their "last day" have been put away, and now she imagines the coming scene at breakfast, how her husband will deliver "the biggest speech of his life," how her children will receive the news. "It's time you were told," she thinks, but will her husband survive the ordeal? "I picture a bomb going off and this house falling to bits." And then, just when you can't stand the anxiety of this mystery one more moment, it goes on for 100 more pages:
"How different tomorrow will be."
"Tomorrow looks like being a rainy day, my darlings."
"It's a lasting sadness to me, and it will have its extra stab tomorrow."
"We'll see tomorrow."
"Your dad will explain tomorrow."
"He'll give you these intimate details tomorrow."