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.