Wish You Were Here
“Wish You Were Here is a novel full of yearning for tradition and history. For what England has lost.”
Graham Swift’s new novel, his eighth, is, ahem, far from swift. It’s a real slow-burner of a book at once a cozy pastoral, a ghost story, and a luxurious character study of its main protagonist, Jack Luxton. It’s also a tragedy, a lament for an idyllic England rapidly disappearing, being overrun by (an often diseased) modernity, as well as a sad song for a way of life which is on the decline.
Wish You Were Here is a novel full of yearning for tradition and history. For what England has lost.
The novel begins in 2006 on the Isle of Wight, very much the “end” of the country, an island tacked onto the foot of Britain like some grammatical afterthought. Its protagonist is Jack Luxton.
Jack has moved away from his ancestral home, the dairy farm Jebb, in Devon, to the Isle of Wight, by the sea, where he is now “tending a herd of caravans” instead of cows. We meet Jack on that most devastating of days, as he receives a letter informing him that his long lost (and prodigal) brother, Tom, has been killed in action in Iraq. This ripple-effects of this news spreads into virtually every aspect of Jack’s life, dredging up long-hidden memories and buried secrets, calling into question everything Jack once held to be true.
The reader’s first impression of Jack is rather mixed. For when we first meet him he is a rather lumpen, unidimensional character. Wholly uninspiring: even his wife, Ellie says of him: “He wasn’t even, perhaps, when you stood back and looked, that much to speak of really, that much to bloody write home about. Other women might say, ‘Him?’”
Jack: “didn’t look like a man given to outbursts, or to much extravagant self-expression at all. He looked pretty hefty and —What was the word?—bovine. He looked—and judging from those photographs still in his wallet his brother had been just the same—like a big strong man.”
Graham Swift is one of the greatest character writers still working today, but at times even he seems to have problems with the “wall-faced” Jack, our former farmer who seems almost too wooden to give life to. Indeed, there are occasions in which Jack appears as a mere cipher, a puppet through which author Swift himself becomes present in the novel.
There are frequent examples of Mr. Swift undertaking Jack’s talking and thinking on his character’s behalf, and the author does acknowledge in the text that he speaks in a language Jack does not himself possess. “Though the letter hadn’t used the word ‘flight.’ It had used a word which Jack had never encountered before but which would lie now in his head like some piece of mental territory: repatriation.”
And when he is allowed to use his own voice, Jack’s is a primal, earthy one: “‘You bastard.’ It kept coming to his mouth like a chant or some regular convulsion, like the only word he might ever say again.”
Jack does see, and acknowledge, his own limitations though: “A cow was only one notch up, perhaps, in thinking power, from a caravan. At Jebb, Jack had occasionally thought he wasn’t that many notches up from a cow.” And: “How could he, Jack, ever make a speech?”
That Mr. Swift manages to make of Jack’s mean clay a character who involves the reader, whose journey keeps us reading, is a telling fact. Because, actually, Jack is exactly the right type of hero required for this kind of novel: i.e. he is not a hero at all. Not in the conventional sense. His journey becomes one in which he must overcome his “great desire not to know who he was” and to attain some kind of peace.
Stylistically, the novel is excellently wrought. For this is a long and winding tale of impressive style, reflecting the psychogeography of the rather whimsical, rather mythical England he explores, with its meandering country roads and its simple, unassuming folk.
Jack is initially reluctant to tell us very much at all about himself, and his rambling talk and shifting timeframes become like a country road in Devon or on the Isle of Wight.
His story is circuitous. High hedges flank the sides so you can’t see where you’re going. The text is full of ellipses and backtracks (“People could help by dying. Yes, they could. No, they couldn’t.”), narrative cul-de-sacs, and off-roading into the uncertainty of his own consciousness and understanding of what has happened.
There are countless examples of characters reflecting on the things that have remained unsaid, or undone:
“The twin hedges take her in their grasp, the golden sunshine mocks her. She drives on down, along the dry ruts, to her father, who, indeed, since he’s been seeking oblivion anyway, will never know, any more than Jack will, what Ellie has done today. The things we never know. She drives back into Westcott Farm, to her mother’s absence, to her sleeping father (who when she wakes him with a mug of tea, doesn’t want to be woken) and to the mooing, snorting, pissing, shitting fact of cows to be milked.”
And also those things they should never have said in the first place: “She should never have said that. And even from a practical point of view—surely Ellie saw this, she being the one who always saw things so sharply—that gap of almost two months ahead might not be so roomy after all.”
Mr. Swift’s (and Jack’s) England is a “green and pleasant land,” as in William Blake’s ‘And did those feet in ancient time.’ But it is a land scarred by events. The soil is blood red—literally and figuratively.
Symbolically, it has been stained by the slaughter of cows: “Cattle going mad all over England. Or being shoved by the hundred into incinerators for the fear and the risk of it.” For ultimately, this is a novel about the “human toll” of the twin disasters for the “farming fraternity” of mad cow disease and foot and mouth disease.
And of course, there is an obvious link between the piles of mad cows and the dead soldiers, killed like cattle in farflung places like Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s the oblique reference to another poem, this one by the famous British wartime poet Wilfred Owen; I’m talking about Anthem for Doomed Youth. The “cullings and slaughterings of recent times and the grief and hardship they were still causing” can refer to both war and to the aftermath of mad cow disease.
Jack struggles with the idea of people as cattle: “Even as the tears came gushing out of him—they had to—out of Jack Luxton’s eyes, that were stony-grey and, most of the time, cool and expressionless like his father’s. Well, people weren’t fucking cattle.”
But it is an idea he returns to again and again after he learns of his brother Tom’s, death. On receipt of the letter, these are his first thoughts: “He’d thought: this is like the cow disease. It was a strange thought to have, but he’d had it. This was like when the cow disease and its real meaning had hit, and he and Tom had waited for Dad to say something, to gather them round the kitchen table, a proper farmhouse meeting, and give them his word. So what now? So what next? But Dad had never gathered them round, and his strongest course of action had been to stand in the yard alone and spit.”
And: “He’d had the thought, later, that the army ought to have its own equivalent of a squad of MAFF slaughtermen to come as quickly as possible and finish off cases like Willis. It would be a mercy, it would save a lot of trouble. It would only be doing what any soldier might sign up for. If you’d do it for an animal.”
Mr. Swift also introduces the idea of the subtle differences between public and private grief, as Jack, who still defines himself through farming—he is now “an out-of-work farmer”—must cope with a public funeral, with press reports and with public interest in him and his brother.
Of course, this is a novel about remembrance. There is a large image of a poppy on the front cover of the hardback edition of the book. It’s about remembering and saluting the dead. About wishing they were here, still alive. This is Jack’s wife, Ellie: “So had she wished him dead? Was that the logic? Had she? Wish you were not here? She wishes him not dead now and for a moment even wishes she might be him.”
Wish You Were Here is a profoundly moving, discursive text lingering in the mind long after you’ve closed the book—rather like a ghost. It is also a muted triumph for Graham Swift, one of England’s most reliable novelists.