Thomas Crick, ""a balding quinquagenarian,"" is an English schoolmaster, a history teacher who's about to be let go--partly because the school's history program is being phased out, partly because Crick's unhinged wife has been seized for child-napping (a local scandal), and partly because Crick has allowed his classes to become free-associative storytelling sessions. Here, then, British novelist Swift presents Crick's past and present in a rich, oblique mosaic--along with ironic meditations on history (its circularity), revolution, education, nostalgia, progress, and ecology. Crick sketches in his long family history from the watery fen country: the humble pump-operators and lock-keepers on one side; the striving, haunted, briefly successful brewers on the other (suicide, ghosts, incest); the quality of life on reclaimed land. (""Realism; fatalism; phlegm. To live in the Fens is to receive strong doses of reality."") And, in teasing fragments, Swift reveals the rather lurid events of Thomas' WW II-era youth--beginning with the discovery of a floating dead body by Thomas' lock-keeper father. Did local lad Freddie Parr drown accidentally? Or was he killed, as Thomas suspects, by Thomas' older, retarded brother, ""potato-head"" Dick? And is the motive connected to all three lads' sexual interest in adventurous farmer's daughter Mary Metcalf? (Mary initiates both eager Thomas and bewildered Dick into sex, becomes pregnant, undergoes a primitive, botched abortion--and winds up, years later, as Thomas' above-mentioned wife, childless and insane.) The 1980s Thomas recalls all this personal history, with its irrevocable effect on the present; similarly, the rather stagey finale--the long-ago suicide of brother Dick--illustrates what happens when ugly family-history catches up with the descendants. So there's a firm thematic connection between Thomas' individual nightmares and his more philosophical musings on History. Still, this ambitious novel doesn't quite manage to hide the melodramatic, even gothic, nature of the central story. Nor does Swift always succeed in justifying his digressions--especially when they lapse into literary self-indulgence (rhetorical questions, Dear-Reader preciousness). And the result is an attempted tour-de-force that's only intermittently absorbing--with glimmers of powerful, dark sadness Ã la William Golding. . . but not quite enough plain, credible human drama to support such a grand, artificial design.