Shuttlecock Characters
by Graham Swift

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The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

While Shuttlecock tells the story of a son’s recovery of his father’s “true past,” and while it is narrated in the son’s “voice,” Prentis is oddly impersonal about the personal and family crises which are woven throughout this tale of detection. As an information specialist, Prentis is interested in facts and the interpretation of fact: He is a hermeneutic scientist who has little room in his life for emotions. The clipped, matter-of-fact style of the narration suggests that, like his father, Prentis suffers from a form of catatonia which belies the closed, cheery ending of the novel, where he recounts the reunion with his family. In his move from apprentice to chief, Prentis, in a sense, becomes another Quinn, and this beginning of a successful career and a happier family life has quite sinister undertones: Like Quinn, Prentis will become a disseminator and destroyer of information, a dictator of fact.

On one level, it could be seen that Prentis (the autobiographical, confessional “I” who is the main—perhaps only—“character” of his own story) has been successfully initiated into a form of adulthood: In the end, he accepts the imperfections of the father, he takes over Quinn’s responsibilities, and he becomes a father again to his sons and a husband to his wife. In this psychological reading, Prentis has grown up because he is willing to accept the world as a place where good and evil, heroism and betrayal coexist and where judgments or values must be based on their mixture, rather than their separation.

Swift leaves open, however, the possibility of a quite different reading, wherein existence is seen as a form of repression. Prentis’ success and happiness are ultimately based on a suppression of knowledge (he never reads “File E” himself before it is burned, but he simply takes Quinn’s summary of it as truth); if he becomes another Quinn, then he assumes the role of a god-like authority in a fallen, human world who will often be in the position of dictating “what is good for the common man”; in the final scene, where he romps with his wife and children on the beach, one senses that Prentis, the narrator, is hiding something from the reader in this artificial portrait of the nuclear family reunited. Playing the role of the narrator, Prentis is unreliable precisely when he becomes chief of information, a job that requires the judicious suppression of the truth: The reader is left with the question, What form and quantity of truth does one receive in this cold confession?

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Prentis, the narrator, a senior clerk in a London police bureau that handles information on closed and unsolved cases. In his early thirties, secretive, and self-consciously prickly—almost paranoid—with a tyrannical and sadistic streak, he also has a capacity and craving for affection that leave him hurt by his sons’ lack of interest and respect and his wife’s quiet withdrawal. He has been unable to live up to his own father’s heroic image after reading his wartime memoirs at the age of eleven. Prentis’ confused adult relationship to “Dad,” whom he visits religiously every Wednesday and Sunday at a mental home (visits that his family resents), talking to him even though he cannot talk back, is one reason for his own familial failures. His obsession with the past and his father’s role in it, especially his father’s daring escape from the Gestapo, ultimately dovetails with his professional suspicions about the C-9 case, missing files, and his boss, Quinn. At the opening of the novel, he is surprised to hear that he is to get Quinn’s job; at the close, his promotion and his decision quietly to suppress police information that may hurt the innocent allows his rehabilitation as husband and father.


Quinn, the bureau chief, another problematic father figure with a suspect military background, unsmiling and curt. Quinn is plump and bespectacled, with none of the physical attributes of power, but his...

(The entire section is 1,024 words.)