Call me superficial, but I was disappointed in The Sweet-Shop Owner by Graham Swift. I’d been hoping to read more about the sweets the main character sold (humbugs, barley sugars, chocolate-covered aniseed rings, toffees and whatever else takes your fancy) than of his actual life. My mistake, the clue was right there in the title.
The gently-told story is told by Willy Chapman to his absent daughter, Dorothy, over a summer’s day as he prepares to end his life. Willy’s wife, Irene, has recently died and Dorrie, who has never understood why her mother was so emotionally detached from her or Willy, or why her father was so devoted to her mother despite the lack of love, has asked Willy for a large amount of money, intending never to see him again once she received it.
Willy was a clerk when he met Irene, the daughter of a successful business-man. Willy fell in love with Irene instantly but her feelings towards him were more complicated. Willy amused Irene, and she seemed to feel a slight affection for him, but nothing more, and on the strength of these emotions they married. Irene bought Willy the sweet-shop, which also sold newspapers, cigarettes and later, toys. Willy worked there for the duration of their married life.
Not long after they married, Willy fell off a ladder working in the shop and was so badly injured that he was unable to see active service for England in World War Two although he did work for the army in stores for the duration of the war. During the war he wrote to Irene, telling her how many helmets the stores remitted to the army imagining this was a code she would recognise as him telling her that he loved her.
Despite Irene’s chronic asthma, the birth of their daughter Dorrie was her gift to Willy for their marriage and for his part, he ran the sweet-shop. After Irene’s death, Mrs Cooper, who had worked in the shop for years, unsuccessfully tried to make a play for Willy and the jealous scenes between her and a brash young woman who also works in the shop are amusing. What I will most remember from this book though is the bitterness of poor Dorrie, who will no doubt go on to make the same emotional mistakes as her own parents, either loving someone who is unable to love her back, or by loving someone and being unable to show them.
The Sweet-Shop Owner is a little slow but I believe it was the author’s first novel and on the strength of this book will probably seek out his later works eventually.