The Light of Day

By Graham Swift

The Light of Day is a quiet, accomplished novel in disguise. On its face it is a “day book”, a form of literary exercise (like Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, or more recently John Lanchester’s Mr. Phillips and Swift’s previous novel Last Orders) that takes the events of a single day as its subject. From dawn to dusk of a “cold but beautiful” day in November we accompany George Webb, a disgraced ex-policeman turned private investigator, as he travels around London and its environs. The day in question is special to him, being the second anniversary of a murder he had some involvement in.

So the real action of The Light of Day, its story, has already taken place. It is a tale told in flashbacks, and nothing much happens on the day in question at all. George returns to the scene of the crime – a suburban home where a married client killed her philandering husband after his return from seeing his girlfriend off. Everything looks normal. He visits the husband’s grave, almost expecting some signal from the beyond. But there is nothing. Even his visit to the women’s prison, where the ex-client he is now in love with is staying, is anticlimactic and scarcely described.

Great moments of passion presumably occur but are kept offstage. Only their fallout is registered. Swift’s project is to expand on fine observations and repeat subtle verbal formulas obsessively, scratching at them until they give some indication of what lies beneath. The nothing that happens during George’s day conceals a world of hidden motives, repressed memories and inarticulate feelings.

This is typical of detective novels, but The Light of Day doesn’t fit the genre. There is little suspense or mystery involved. What it takes from the world of private investigation is a fascination with other people’s secret lives and its questioning of how we can really know what goes on behind the suburban facades we drive by every day. “Lift off the roofs of houses, lift up their lids, and what would you see? What would the aggregate be? More misery and hatred than you could begin to imagine? Or more secret happiness, more goodness and mercy than you ever could have guessed?” George has to wonder, and so do we.

This pervading sense of secrecy and disguise is infectious. George’s family has its own secrets. His daughter hides her lesbian partner from him. His father had an affair. He even makes a habit of lying to himself, calling himself a man of action when he is anything but. His problem is that he is a melancholy, introspective figure who thinks too much. He is less a romantic than a voyeur, someone who observes and analyzes love. His outer life is only a series of rituals.

The Light of Day is a deliberately low-key work that requires a lot of reading between the lines. Impressive as a technical achievement – there is no disputing Swift’s reputation as one of Britain’s finest writers – it remains somewhat distant and uninvolved. That may be deliberate too, but it leads to a book more likely to be admired than enjoyed.

Review first published June 7, 2003.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: