Graham Swift opens his new novel with an epigram from one of John Donne’s most powerful poems, “The Good-Morrow”:

I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did, til we loved? Were we not wean’d til then?

The poem, in which love makes “one little room an everywhere,” is the perfectly in-gazing anthem for Paula and Mike Hook, married 25 years and still having self-admittedly great sex; a pair that spawned another pair, twins Nick and Kate, who have just turned 16. But lying awake on a rainy June night in 1995, her husband slumbering beside her, Paula has little reason to hope her morrow will be good. She and Mike have kept a secret from their children that, by agreement, they will reveal in the morning. The secret — what it is, how it came to be, how it will irrevocably change this happy middle-class family — makes up the 250 pages of this sometimes trenchant, sometimes turgid novel. It is to Swift’s great credit that even such a slender, self-absorbed story can still yield so much: not directly, through the revelation or working out of its overhyped secret, but through its narrator’s unexamined ambivalence about the very family she seeks to protect.

Tomorrow, Mike will do the talking, but tonight, mentally addressing her sleeping children in the next room, it is Paula’s turn. She begins at the beginning, when she and Mike met in Brighton in the freewheeling 1960s. Mike slept with Paula’s two flatmates before he slept with her, and then never again slept with anyone else. The two drank champagne, fell in love, married. Paula became an increasingly successful art dealer. Mike struggled in research (on snails) before taking over as editor of the popular-science magazine The Living World and turning it into a publishing success. They moved from one dull suburb of London to a tonier one. They got a cat. Eventually, after seven years, they conceived Nick and Kate. Paula confesses one of the biggest tragedies of her youth was wanting to play Puck in her school production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream and being cast instead as Mustardseed. The events of her life have been small and unremarkable, except for the secret she’s carried these past 16 years, which tomorrow, she reminds us ominously (and repeatedly), will change everything.

Much of Swift’s subtle drama arises out of shiftings of place and class that may be hard for American readers to track. The University of Sussex attended by Mike and Paula was new and progressive in the late 60s, a hotbed of radicalism and experimentation. Now they live in Putney, a leafy suburb with solid schools. Definitely not lost in translation is Paula’s sense of baby-boomer competitiveness and rationalization, which starts out innocently enough but over the course of the book, as the secret gradually unfolds, becomes more pointed. It’s easy to joke about Mike having tried out her two roommates before her, but in Paula’s need to make it fit her narrative, she uses it as a sort of empirical proof that their love was not incidental, that it, like their children, was meant to be. Randomness is deeply terrifying to Paula, and she finds meaning in constant balancing and calculating. She and Mike were born in the same “important” year — 1945 — and are the same age except for the seven months that Mike ” laps her” and she does her annual “catching up”: “Sixteen is like eighteen was, sixteen years ago.” She tells her kids that “you yourselves were the work of painstaking calculation” and “One has to count so many things in life. Days, hours, minutes…Calories, pounds, blood pressure, heart rate. Days since your last period….No, I’ve counted lots of things, but I never thought I’d become so keenly involved in counting sperm.”

Yes, the big secret — so obvious from the beginning that I’m spoiling nothing here — is that Nick and Kate were conceived by artificial means. Their father is not “really” their father, which even by 1995 standards couldn’t have been much of a bombshell. Mike, her lover, her chosen partner, cannot give her children, and the ambivalence this engenders, more than anything else, is what keeps Paula up at night. “Whatever dies is not equally mixed,” Donne writes deeper into “TheGood-Morrow,” and though Paula takes great pains to downplay it, she is acutely conscious of the disparity between her position as a spouse and biological mother and that of Mike, the odd-man-out in the bloodline. She loves him, she lets us know, in spite of his unequal social status, his early unglamorous career in snails, his subpar sperm count.

The more she protests her love, the more we doubt her, until it is not so much Mustardseed but Lady Macbeth she resembles. For all her effusion, a kind of unspoken anger permeates Paula’s story, that Mike’s “problem” should force her to think about something that for other families might go unexamined, that Science intruded into Art, that, by accepting a sperm donor she is forced to be, to her mind, unfaithful. And so, as if in a strange sort of revenge, she sleeps with the local vet, who has been the first to suggest artificial insemination. It’s not lost on the reader that the veterinarian is the only character in the book to have heard of the small science journal Mike edits, the only one to raise him in her estimation. And as if to thank him for respecting her husband, she sleeps with him, making sure she stays one-up on “poor Mikey.”

And here we are forced to ask what Swift wants us to take away from Paula’s dark night of the soul. Are we to find in her dreamlike narration — so freighted with dread over the relation of an issue so deflatingly commonplace — a sign of the airlessness that is the condition of such a well-scrubbed life? Or are we meant to fully share in Paula’s sense of the bittersweet destiny that she brings to this narrative all-nighter. Reading a dramatic monologue, one hopes to pierce through the veil of the speaker’s self-representation and, by the end, know the character better than she knows herself. But it feels as if Swift himself has not decided who she is, as if the author’s own uncertainty about Paula and her version of events lies at the heart of his creation.

And so we watch her going through the novel, alternately killing off her husband and fiercely protecting him. We feel for Mike, asleep beside her, absent and present at the same time, almost a peripheral, agentless player. “I have the shivery feeling he won’t be here anymore,” Paula says, “not after tomorrow.”

Swift ends his book with dawn breaking and the rain tapering off. Paula’s inner storm is primarily one of dread and we have the sense that tomorrow, with its final reckoning, will provide some relief. Still, if she could, Paula would prolong tonight and preserve the careful fiction she has created. “I want it both ways,” she says (referring to an anniversary trip Mike has planned back to the same hotel, the same room perhaps, where she slept with the vet years before). “I want both to go and not go to Gifford Park, I want you to listen to these things I’m telling you and not hear them at all.” For Swift, knowledge and the desire to protect from knowledge, like love and disappointment, are inextricable from the Living World and all it might conceive.