Wish You Were Here, by Graham Swift

Purchased from AbeBooks.com

The title of Graham Swift’s new novel, Wish You Were Here, comes from a postcard that thirteen-year-old Jack Luxton sends to his neighbor, best friend and soon-to-be lover, Ellie Merrick. Jack’s family have run a dairy farm in North Devon for centuries (the first Luxton farmhouse was built in 1614) — a life that requires attention 24/7, 365 days a year. But for two years running in his teens, his mother insisted that she be allowed to take Jack and his younger brother, Tom, for a week-long holiday at a caravan camp at Brigwell Bay, near Lyme Regis, so that they can understand, however briefly, that there is life beyond the farm.

They might have been the first postcards Ellie had ever received. They were certainly the first Jack had ever written. And the first of the two would have been a serious struggle for him, if his mother hadn’t helped him and, after a little thought, suggested he write, ‘Wish you were here.’ And he had. He hadn’t known it was the most uninventive of messages. He’d written it. And he’d wished it.

Spoiler Alert: Without trying to put too fine a gloss on it, that incident is about as cheery as Wish You Were Here gets. Wish You Weren’t Here would have been a more accurate summary of the tenor of the novel, but it lacks the wistfulness and longing of the actual title. If you have an aversion to spoilers and are contemplating reading Swift’s novel, abandon this review after this paragraph and come back once you have read it — I can’t write about the novel without revealing some things that Swift doesn’t address until later in the book. On the other hand, I promise to take some care in what I do reveal; even if it seems a spoiler, trust me that I have left important aspects unsaid.

Wish You Were Here is about death and the different impact that deaths have on those left behind, hence the irony of the title. Swift wastes little time in introducing readers to that theme, although his opening example doesn’t even involve human life:

Sixty-five head of cattle. Or, to reckon it another way (and never mind the promised compensation): ruin, at some point in the not-so-distant future, the ruin that had been creeping up on them anyway since Vera Luxton [Jack's mother] had died.

Cattle going mad all over England. Or being shoved by the hundreds into incinerators for the fear and the risk of it. Who would have imagined it? But cattle aren’t people, that’s a fact. And when trouble comes your way, at least you might think, though it’s small comfort and precious little help: Well, we’ve had our turn now, our share.

That quote early in the book actually comes in the form of a memory for Jack. In the present tense, he is sitting in another caravan holiday camp — this one is on the Isle of Wight and he and Ellie, now his wife, own and operate it. He is watching television (“It was the big pyre at Roak Moor, back in Devon. Thousands of stacked-up cattle, thousands more lying rotting in the fields. The thing was burning day and night.”) and this disaster is not the BSE contagion that led to the culling of the Luxton dairy herd, it is 10 years on and this threat is foot-and-mouth disease.

Swift also quickly establishes that in the present Jack and Ellie are in the midst of some very serious dispute:

Ellie has been gone for over an hour — this weather yet to unleash itself when she left. She could be sitting out the storm somewhere, pulled up in the wind-rocked Cherokee. Reconsidering her options, perhaps.
……..
[Jack's] already taken the shotgun from the cabinet downstairs — the keys are in the lock — and brought it up here. It’s lying, loaded, on the bed behind him, on the white duvet. For good measure he has a box of twenty-five cartridges (some already in his pocket), in case of police cars, in case of mishaps. It’s the first time, Jack thinks, that he’s ever put a gun on a bed, let alone theirs, and that, by itself, has to mean something.

Virtually everything that has occured between the culling of the Luxton dairy herd and the situation on the Isle of Wight is the result of a death. The poppy on the cover of the book is a well-chosen image. Two Luxton brothers died in the same incident in the Great War — one was awarded the DCM but the family has always believed that was a random choice and both deserved it. Remembrance Day is the only day that Jack’s abusive father, Michael, puts on a suit and he always ends the outing by making a once-a-year visit to the pub (“Drink, Michael would say, is money down the gullet”) where he puts a twenty on the bar to stand a round for the vets and others gathered there after the ceremony and silence.

Vera Luxton’s death of cancer when Jack is 21 leaves an unfillable void in the family. Death in the Luxton family is a cumulative experience; when someone passes on, the survivors inherit not just the farm but all the destructive emotional baggage of previous generations. Jack’s father is not up to that and neither is his brother Tom, who five years after his mother’s death reaches the age of majority and runs away to join the British Army (adding yet more guilt to the load his father and brother are already carrying).

For Ellie, however, death is not just a painful departure, it is also a liberating experience — she buries the inherited baggage with the coffin. When her own alcoholic father dies (only a few weeks after Jack’s father), Ellie sees the potential for escape for her and Jack, not more pain. In fact, another death some months previously opened the opportunity of taking over the Isle of Wight caravan park. Needless to say, Jack’s departure from the farm after almost four centuries of Luxton ownership adds yet more to his personal burden.

All of that is presented in retrospect, brought on by another death which I won’t reveal. The worth of Wish You Were Here is captured in the way that Swift explores those two dramatically different types of reaction to the departure of those close to us. The separation of Jack and Ellie which he introduces in the first chapter of the book and which continues as the present-day framing incident of the entire novel is ample indication that the author believes they cannot co-exist forever. It is a tribute to Swift’s ability that both Jack and Ellie are portrayed in a way that requires the reader to respect the reactions of each to the passing of those around them, even if those reactions are poles apart.

Swift explored some similar themes in his Booker winning novel, Last Orders (which I think is the only one of his 10 previous novels that I have read). For me, he does it in an even more accomplished fashion in this new book. The very nature of the theme means that many readers will want to give it a wide berth (and that is why I ventured into revealing possible spoilers) — those who are willing to explore this inherently depressing territory will find much to contemplate.

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7 Responses to “Wish You Were Here, by Graham Swift”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    This one is on my radar. Did you like it? How does it compare to other novels by the same author?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I only remember reading Last Orders, although even that was a long time ago and I think I may have read one or two others in my youth (they obviously haven’t stayed in memory).

    I deliberately avoided saying that I “liked” it because, in fact, I didn’t — but that is because of the unrelenting gloom of the story and its key themes. I was very impressed by it and think it is an excellent novel, if approached with the right frame of mind. On the other hand, I would not fault those who said they wanted no part of it.

  3. Lisa Hill Says:

    Oh dear, I am behind the times, I’ve only just bought Tomorrow, and that came out in 2007!
    I was not so keen on The Light of Day, but I enjoyed Waterland and Last Orders, and on the strength of those two have been hunting out his early titles as well. I’ve got The Sweet Shop Owner and Ever After on the TBR as well as Tomorrow, I just need time to read them…

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: You are well ahead of me in the Swift stakes. A friend has highly recommended Waterland so I will probably get to it eventually. For me, he seems to be in a group of writers (Anita Brookner and Iris Murdoch are two others who come to mind) whom I have read one or two books — which I enjoyed — but did not feel motivated to further explore their work. And I can’t really say why.,

  5. Guy Savage Says:

    I really liked The Sweet Shop Owner-thought it was marvellous. I probably won’t be able to pass this one up but I’ll probably read it along with something funny.

  6. Kevin J MacLellan Says:

    Hello Kevin,
    I think I understand your reservations about G. Swift. His is a gloomy perspective, to be sure. The Sweet Shop Owner is the first book of his that I had read, and it convinced me that here was a first rate author–and a dour pessimist. But I came to see it differently over time: I began to see the work itself as a kind of redemption of the vision, as the author’s way – and thus possibly ours, too – of seeing the ‘miseries, as miseries’ (to paraphrase Keats) but rendered with a sympathy and honest insight (=kindness) which amounts to bearing witness, not merely wallowing in gloom.
    I say this after recently reading Yates’s The Easter Parade, and thinking alot about why (or whether) this type of vision is necessary or laudable. Gloom, for its own sake is so much nonsense; but an unsentimental realism, like a true (or mature?) sense of the absurd is an occasion for empathy at the truly universal level. It may not be everyone’s “cuppa”, but we ignore it at our own peril. Not to face it is to ignore a significant part of what is true of the human experience generally–even universally.
    Of course, even if I am right, it is only worth what the work itself is worth. To pull of this kind of alchemy the writer must be good enough – and honest enough – to produce something so good it makes up for, or ‘redeems’ the anguish of facing it. I believe Swift can do this; and I am leaning toward Yates as another in that class.
    In any case, your own honesty in assessing the work is worth a lot because it brings these crucial matters to the fore. For that I am grateful, and it makes me, and others I am sure, trust your judgment. It is amazing to realize how few reviews do that!

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kevin: I like the phrasing of “bearing witness” to the “gloom” that Swift is attempting to describe. It is present in life and a fictional description is entirely appropriate — I’d also observe that while that makes the book difficult to read, it sows seeds that do keep coming back in memory.

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