My Least Favorite Book

My Least Favorite Book | Lexie WinslowBefore you get too excited, I want to start this post with a disclaimer that my least favorite book is, in my opinion, a pretty lousy book. This might seem like the mother of all redundancies, but I still feel that it needs to be said.

When people talk about least favorites in pop culture in general, and when I have talked about least favorites in my life in particular, the listeners seem to perk up, their appetites whetted for something salacious, thinking, “This is going to be good.” But I’m not writing this post about a book that I think is bad in an awesome way. I’m writing this post about a book that I have read twice, and hated twice. So, if you rush to the library and grab a copy and race through it, only to get to the end feeling deflated about the world and cheated out of some perfectly good reading hours, don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you still aren’t dissuaded, then I’ll tell you now that I’m going to go into the plot in detail, so consider yourself spoiled if you read on.

The book in question is called Waterland. It was written by Graham Swift and published by Vintage in 1983. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the UK’s fanciest literary award. In my experience, it is very popular with men born in the 1960s, particularly those who happen to teach 10th grade English at my high school or 20th Century British Literature at my college. Waterland is preferred by educators for its combination of readability and literary caliber. Apparently, it appeals to the readers as well as the critics, making a statement about the experience of a certain time (the 20th century) in a certain place (East Anglia, England), delivering a tightly contained narrative with universal echoes. Analytically, I understand its merits. I just dislike it.

The narrative of Waterland shifts between two different time frames in Tom Crick’s life, a normal day turned disastrous in his present, and a reminiscence of his teenage years, with a generous dose of East Anglian history included as well. East Anglia is dominated by an unusual type of terrain, known as fens, sort of a cold marsh that is just barely stable enough to build on. The fens are flat, monotone, oppressive. Tom and his friends are restless, growing up in a place that feels frozen in time. Tom’s brother Dick has mental retardation, their mother died years ago, and their father is a slave to the tides, manning the canal next to their home. Things get interesting for Tom when his (also motherless) neighbor Mary initiates a relationship. Their innocent love takes on a menacing quality when Mary fixates on having sex with Dick; later, her further manipulations lead Dick to kill another boy in the town. Mary falls pregnant, and in the midst of the already chaotic situation she takes steps to deliberately miscarry the baby. In the present-day storyline, Tom Crick and Mary are married, middle-aged and childless. Their quiet life is shattered when Mary sneaks a baby out of an unattended shopping cart and wanders off with it, initiating a major police and media response. The book ends with Mary, clearly unhinged, getting arrested.

We can talk about prose and atmosphere and nonlinear storytelling all day, but I will never have a positive reaction to this book. There is no foothold for me in this story, no place for me to grip. I hate the deliberate drudgery of it. I hate the disdain Tom inspires in so many of the people around him. I hate how he stands by as Mary demolishes his life over and over again. I hate the monotony of the fens, and the passage discussing pubic hair. I hate its sterile tone (no pun intended). I hate its post-modern sequence of impulsive self-destruction, ennui, and emotionless catastrophe.

Obviously, the book is as much about Mary as it is about Tom, perhaps moreso. I’ve never quite been able to tell if she is meant to be an anti-hero, or a victim, but I have never been able to see her as anything but the villain. Maybe part of it is being raised in the ‘90s, but I find Mary’s attraction to Dick and subsequent—what to call it? seduction? molestation? rape?—intensely disturbing. I know developmental delays have been viewed differently in different times, and that both characters are teenagers (so equally unable to understand consent, I guess?), but the fact that Mary targets a mentally retarded boy for a sexual relationship is disgusting. It completely throws me out of the book. Even with antiquated social mores, the relationship is clearly beyond Dick’s comprehension, and on top of that, he is the brother of her boyfriend. How is this not wrong? Add to the list that Mary’s fickleness leads the confused, emotionally fraught Dick to kill another boy, and it makes the entire plot repulsive to me on so many levels. The DIY abortion scene where Mary throws herself off of a wall repeatedly until she induces labor to end her accidental pregnancy is rendered in such a sickening way that it actually made me queasy. And what is it all for? To leave an entire town emotionally damaged, with Mary so traumatized that she eventually commits a kidnapping, and Tom standing by watching his life get destroyed time and again.

I know that my intense reaction to the book signifies that the story is impactful, even meaningful. I have tried, in more than one classroom, to explore its literary merits from a distance. But I can never quite separate myself from my visceral dislike of Waterland. I think that the book is a sign of its times, and it’s a time that I just can’t relate to. I can, and obviously do, react to it, but I don’t relate to it.

As a reader, I crave a character to root for, or a story with a little heart, or some hint of insight into the human condition that feels true. Waterland’s insight is that life can be bleak. That children who grow up in boring places with distracted parents make mistakes with permanent consequences. That while some people try to believe in something bigger, accident or misunderstanding or poor judgment can arrive at any moment to ruin everything. That most people only leave behind a legacy of pain and confusion.

Like the landscape it depicts, Waterland is memorable, with a lingering feeling of hopelessness. And that is not my kind of story.

Image via Vintage Books.

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