This time out, Swift (Out of This World, Waterland, Learning to Swim, etc.) at first seems to be reworking a fictional convention that's becoming tired from overuse: the writer--or, as here, the Oxford academic--who finds himself in possession of an old manuscript whose revelations dovetail with the perturbations of the modern interpreter. Bill Unwin is the ambivalent don in question, and the journals (bequeathed by family) concern a Victorian ancestor named Matthew Pearce, a surveyor and rector's son-in-law whose life and faith is changed forever when, on the cliffs of Dorset in 1844, he comes face-to-face with an ichthyosaurus. Darwin replaces God in Pearce at that instant--but in Unwin the revelation only sharpens the dilemma of knowing what's better unknown (in his own case, the suicide death of his father), and the questions of immortality and memory and fame and mutability (all very much on his mind since his beloved actress wife Ruth's early cancer death). Unwin has attempted suicide himself but failed, and the vagrant nature of his narration seems an impossible search for focus. Swift is a very cunning writer, though. Every thematic strand- -books, bridges, railroads, dinosaurs, acting, sex--subtly achieves a color that makes it recognizable once the chords of fugue on the theme of mortality and immortality are struck. And feeling (a rare commodity in younger British writers nowadays) is what makes these colors so high: even at its most looping and shuffling, the book finds ways to move you, untricked-up emotion being its surest ground. Unwin's losses are ranged around, but so are the bravery of his questioning memory and the fidelity of his love.