Graham Swift specializes in bereavement, flashbacks and pubs. LAST ORDERS, his Booker Prize winner, was the story of four war veterans and drinking buddies who gather to scatter the ashes of one of their comrades, a man who recently died of cancer. The story is told largely through flashbacks and shifts in point of view to give us the perspectives of each of the main characters. Swift uses the same technique in his newest novel, WISH YOU WERE HERE, but the result is even richer than in the previous work.
"WISH YOU WERE HERE demonstrates how a good writer can turn a few hours in the life of a quiet married couple into a suspenseful narrative with fully-realized characters."
Jack Luxton and his wife, Ellie, are the owners of Lookout Cottage, 32 vacation caravans on the Isle of Wight. As the novel begins, Jack is sitting on his bed and looking out the window at a torrential downpour. A shotgun is by his side. He is waiting for Ellie, who dashed off after an argument, to return home. The scene isn’t resolved until 300 pages later when we learn the circumstances that precipitate the dispute.
Jack grew up on a dairy farm in Marleston with his parents and younger brother, Tom. In the early 1990s, a series of tragedies strikes the family. Jack’s mother, Vera, who kept the household running while father Michael tended to the animals, dies. BSE and foot-in-mouth disease force them to kill most of their cattle. After Vera’s passing, Tom assumes the role of family nurturer. However, he abandons this position on the eve of his 18th birthday when he sneaks away in the middle of the night to join the army. These losses so cripple Michael that he gives up a cherished, if solemn, tradition; the first year after Tom’s departure, he declines to stop by the Crown pub after the annual Remembrance Day visit to the family’s cemetery plot. That will not be the last or most devastating of Michael’s reactions.
Ellie’s family, the Merricks, also own a farm, and they too suffer losses. The biggest one comes when Ellie’s mother abandons her family and marries a man known to Ellie only as Uncle Tony. When her mother and Uncle Tony die, Ellie inherits the Sands, a seaside property that Tony owned. The Sands is similar to the place where Jack, Tom and Vera vacationed when Jack was a boy, and from which he sent Ellie postcards inscribed with the novel’s title. This inheritance, Ellie says, is their ticket out of a lifetime of toil on struggling farms. She gets him to agree to sell Jebb Farm, his family’s property. They move to the Sands, rename it Lookout Cottage, and begin a comfortable life as resort owners. What would his mother think, Jack often wonders, to see him working not as hard as in the days when he had to hose down the milking parlor?
Jack and Ellie’s life changes, however, when the army contacts them with the news that Tom was killed on active duty in Basra; his armored vehicle triggered a roadside bomb. A Major Richards tells them that repatriation will take place at an airbase near Oxfordshire. Ellie’s refusal to accompany Jack on the trip unleashes years of pent-up resentment and leads to the novel’s shattering conclusion.
WISH YOU WERE HERE demonstrates how a good writer can turn a few hours in the life of a quiet married couple into a suspenseful narrative with fully-realized characters. Swift builds tension by giving you glimpses into the Luxtons’ lives and then gradually filling in the details. He is a master at knowing when to withhold information and when to reveal it. This elliptical structure occasionally gives us too many asides --- we don’t need to know Major Richards’ thoughts, for example --- but the cumulative effect is one of immense power. Even seemingly small story elements, such as a 500-year-old oak tree, a dog’s blanket, and a Distinguished Conduct Medal from World War I, acquire significance beyond what one might expect.
In one of the novel’s later scenes, Jack tells Ellie that he thinks they should inform Tom, long stationed overseas, of their plan to sell Jebb Farm. “Forget him, Jack,” Ellie says. “He’s probably forgotten you.” The wisdom of Swift’s novel is in its knowledge that one can’t forget, that the past is always with us, and painful memories never go away. The best you can do is to find your sources of comfort --- a seaside vacation or a night at the pub --- and, as the title suggests, hope that the people whose company you treasure can share the experience.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on May 4, 2012
Wish You Were Here