The Sweet Shop Owner

by Graham Swift

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Featured image for The Sweet Shop Owner

I started reading this and was captivated by it right from the beginning. Darren was surprised, telling me I’d only given three stars to Swift’s book Waterland which won the Booker Prize. I remember that book suffering from me taking ages to read it. This book didn’t suffer that way, I think I finished it in two days. This tells the story of the life of Willy Chapman, the sweet shop owner of the title. It was the author’s first novel and it flows very easily but it’s not told simply. The flow of the story ripples and ebbs and runs into whirlpools. You gradually figure out how the family dynamics between Willy and his wife and daughter has been played out. Then there is his wife’s family who play a much bigger role than Willy’s own parents. The writing is clear and fabulous.

The book was published in 1980 and the story is being told from a viewpoint of 1975ish. This puts it in a weird sort of uncanny valley to me. I’d have been too young to read it on release but if I’d read this as a young adult - in the late 1980s or 1990s - it would have seemed more or less contemporary to me. But now when even the 1980s are the setting for historical novels it gives me this strange feeling of being historical and contemporary at the same time. The high street world of Mr Chapman’s sweet shop no longer exists. If he was still there today he’d have become a vape shop and the red and white barber’s pole that he laments the taking down of would have reappeared and multiplied (I always thought this was just a consequence of a trip to the barbers being something you can’t buy online, but people tell me it’s all money laundering, I haven’t investigated further). The estate agents across the road would probably have been absorbed into a chain though the staff probably wouldn’t be much more competent. So I think it read to me as a different sort of book than it would have done forty years back. I really liked the quiet way the story was told, it’s all in the little details.

Looking back over my write ups it looks like Graham Swift is a bit of a hit and miss author to me but this was definitely a very gentle hit.