Graham Swift: Wish You Were Here
The old Swiftian themes are all here: rejection of parents, rejection of the past, with each generation having to find its own way, a changing world, even if we are not aware of the changes, and the fact that each one of us makes his or her history and his or her contribution to history. The main focus is on the Luxton family. Two brothers fought in World War I. Both are killed in the same battle, with one, probably the wrong one, being awarded, the DCM. Both Michael and Jack Luxton, father and son, will cling to this medal as a talisman and will show it in the local pub on Remembrance Day. Michael and his wife, Vera, ran a farm. Vera was the heart and soul of the farm but she succumbed to cancer. Michael, a grumpy man, struggled on, with his two sons, Jack and Tom, eight years Jack’s junior. Tom cannot wait to get out and tells Jack that, on his eighteenth birthday, he will leave to join the army. He does just that, leaving at three in the morning. Jack never sees him again. The following year, at the Remembrance Day Parade, while Michael attends the Parade, he does not goes to the pub immediately afterwards, to Jack’s surprise, but heads straight for home. Jack assumes that he is embarrassed because of Tom, whose departure is known about in the village but has never been explained. The next morning, Michael gets up early, goes to a nearby field and blows his brains out.
Jack has one other key element in his life beside his family and that is Elly. She is the daughter of the neighbouring farmer and she and Jack have grown up together as friends (as children) and later as lovers. Soon after the death of Michael, Elly’s father dies. Her mother had long since left and had never been in touch. It turns out that she had set up home with a man called Tony and they had run a caravan park. She had died and Tony had inherited. Now he has died and he has left everything to Elly, even though they had never met. Elly persuades Jack that this is something they should take on, to get away from the farms, with all their problems. They take the caravan park on and do well at it, even able to afford a Caribbean holiday every year.
There have been three key letters in Elly’s life. The first was a postcard from Jack, when he was just eleven. He had been on holiday with his parents to another caravan park. He had been persuaded by his mother to send Elly a postcard on which he wrote Wish You Were Here. Elly has never received a postcard or a letter before and she is bowled over with it and remembers it all her life. The second is the letter about Tony’s death and the caravan park. The third is actually received by Jack, forwarded from the farm, informing him of the death of his brother in Basra. Much of the book is concerned with the repercussions of this letter and Tom’s death for both Jack and Elly.
This and other plot elements are slowly unwound for us, like a skein of wool being gradually teased out. This is fine if it is done in chronological order but Swift jumps backwards and forwards in time so we get bits here and there and have to wait for others. For example, fairly near the beginning we know that Jack is upset about something. He gets a gun – the gun that his father used to kill himself – loads it and puts it on the bed, next to him. He seems to be waiting for Elly who has gone out. Why? We do not learn why or what happens till almost the end of the book. Yes, of course, it is a novelist’s trick but as he has messed with the chronological order already, it is fairly annoying.
This is a fairly grim book. Death is prevalent everywhere. There is firstly the death of Jack’s parents and Elly’s father and the death of Tom. We learn a lot about Michael’s death (and its repercussions, not just on Jack but on the people who buy the house from Jack) and a certain amount about Tom’s death though more about the aftermath. However, it is not human death we are concerned with. Swift gives us a long drawn-out account of Michael’s shooting of their dog, Luke, when the dog is very old. Mad cow disease and foot and mouth, with the concomitant slaughtering of cattle, are prevalent. Finally, there is Jack’s episode with the gun.
I finished this book feeling not very satisfied with it. The annoying unraveling of the plot, the overall grimness, with little compensatory humour or optimism, as in Last Orders, and the relatively unsatisfactory ending left me feeling that there could have been more to this book but that, somehow, Swift, was unable to give us this more, the more you might find in the books of some of the other Granta’s Best of the Young British Novelists: 1983 such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Christopher Priest, including the sense of another, self-contained world, a world of ideas and a more original plot. I do not mean to say that this book is a bad book. It certainly is not. However, Swift has yet to make the leap that would place him at the forefront of English novelists.
First published 2011 by Picador