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Love, death, obsession -- all in a day's work

The Light of Day; A Novel; Graham Swift; Alfred A. Knopf: 326 pp., $24

May 21, 2003|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

The fourth sentence in Graham Swift's new novel, a dissection of murder, troubled love and obsession, balances on the pinpoint of enigma. "We cross a line," he writes, "we open a door we never knew was there."

The first phrase carries an implied slap on the wrist, a warning that we are about to do something we really shouldn't.

The second phrase rings with the promise of discovery. Maybe the door opens to a dark closet; maybe to a room full of treasures. Until we peer across the threshold, though, we can't know whether this is a moment of portent, or the eve of exhilaration.

The novel is terse in tone but broad in sweep, structured within a single day that begins in the office of George Webb, a private investigator in the part of Wimbledon that has nothing to do with tennis or strawberries and cream. After coercing a witness in a stabbing case, Webb was run off the police force by a reform-minded administrator. It wasn't part of the severance package, but his wife left him then too.

The twin losses serve as a tabula rasa, a chance for Webb to redefine himself. He learned he can cook. He can have affairs. He can connect with the world outside the insularities of marriage and job.

Measured against his own template, he thinks of himself as an upright citizen but also acknowledges that his affairs with female clients might not measure up to more independent standards.

Like Swift's last novel, the 1996 Booker Prize-winning "Last Orders," this work uses a death to pry loose memory and to chip away at the suppositions and self-delusions through which people view themselves and their lives. Yet it also affirms the shifting nature of human connections, and uses the mundane details of a single day to explore the broad scopes of love and passion, venality and benevolence, obsession and despair.

Although the novel centers on a detective and a killing, it is not a mystery. At least not in the conventional sense. The mystery here lies in the realm of human motives and passions.

It's Nov. 20, 1997. Webb is about to leave flowers at the grave of a murdered man on the anniversary of his death, then visit the killer -- the man's wife, Sarah Nash -- in prison. Sarah had earlier hired Webb not to confirm her husband's affair with a young Croatian refugee the couple had taken in, but to ensure that the other woman boarded a plane for home as the husband had promised.

The husband's obsession with his mistress seems contagious: Webb becomes infatuated with Sarah, who asked him to witness the mistress' departure at the airport while she prepared an elaborate dinner of coq au vin for her husband's return, a domestic signal that she believed the relationship could survive the infidelity. Instead, moments after the husband returned home, she stabbed him through the heart.

Nothing is given away here because there is never any doubt that the killing will take place. It serves as the stage for Swift's real subjects: Love and faith, survival and self-exploration and the motives of the heart, both petty and grand.

They are intriguing themes, but in the end not particularly revelatory. Swift's characters don't seek personal redemption so much as a state of perseverance. They muddle along overcoming crises large and small, both of their own making and out of their control. They cling tenaciously to the faults and virtues that make them who they are, and that help them ride out what storms may come.

The book ends with an enigma of obsession, with Webb at the start of another "hard night coming, you can tell already, another hard frost" that will give way to a morning "brilliant blue and still." It will be like that, he dreams, on the day Sarah walks out of prison in eight years or so.

Significantly, Sarah will be crossing the line then, opening a door she knows is there. Neither of them, though, can be sure what is on the other side. Or what their lives will be when Webb's dreams for the future are measured against the reality, "when she comes back, steps out at last into the clear light of day."

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