The Sweet-Shop Owner – Graham Swift

I love Graham Swift.  He is quite possibly my favorite (living) English author.  Waterland ranks in my top ten all-time favorites and for a bookslut, that says a lot.  I picked up a copy of his first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner, when I was at a used bookstore.  It’s my favorite kind of used book – meaning that it doesn’t look like it was ever read.  While it is unfortunate that it wasn’t read because of its brilliance and fantastic writing, I loved paying used prices for new condition books.  Anyway, I digress.

As previously mentioned, The Sweet-Shop Owner is Graham’s first novel.  Published in 1980, it was highly praised and started the long amazing career for the English novelist who won the Booker Prize in ’96.  Swift’s first novel shows how he mastered the tools of genius writing early in his career, and the novel is everything I look for in a good book; each word carefully chosen, each character artfully depicted, and each heartbreak/victory/failure of resonating quality.  After the disappointing The Elephant Keeper, it was nice to pick up another English novel and be swept away.

The novel centers around Willy Chapman, the sweet-shop owner, and blends the past with the present to create the ordinary life of an ordinary man.  But things aren’t all as they seem.  The reader is introduced to his dead wife – a beautiful strange creature who, though dead, is a very living character.  Willy’s daughter also is a very present character even though she doesn’t appear physically all that much.

It is a story of family, money, and the things we do for love.  It is also a story of letting go and accepting the hand you’ve been dealt.  I’m not going to lie; the story is heartbreaking and I learned to hate the women that Willy loved with all his being, but if you’re looking for a great story, a story that is tightly woven by a true literary master, then pick up any Swift novel.  Better yet, pick up this one.

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