Book review: Graham Swift’s “Wish You Were Here,” reviewed by Ron Charles
By Ron Charles,
Graham Swift’s previous novel, “Tomorrow” (2007), was such a fiasco that a grim kind of suspense built up around his new book. Would “Wish You Were Here” inspire another round of jeering on both sides of the Atlantic?
We shouldn’t have worried. “Tomorrow” was clearly just a Booker winner’s misstep, an awkward exorcism of some writerly kink. “Wish You Were Here” is an extraordinary novel, the work of an artist with profound insight into human nature and the mature talent to deliver it just the way he wants. The 62-year-old British author has set this unhurried exploration of grief and longing in the English countryside, but it’s infected with the violent terrors of contemporary life. As he did with “Waterland” (1983) — as every truly great novelist does — in this new book, he demonstrates that perfect coordination between style and story. You could no more separate this plot from the way Swift constructs it than you could detach the melody from a symphony.
Take that as a warning, too: Swift’s closest musical counterpart is probably Philip Glass, so if the mere mention of that composer gives you leg cramps and flashbacks of being trapped in the Kennedy Center, flee. Swift introduces a few characters, a handful of scenes, two or three objects and then ruminates on them for 300 pages, setting aside chronology to cycle through the same events, thoughts and phrases again and again, from this angle and that, building and elaborating toward a crescendo that is absolutely gorgeous.
“Wish You Were Here” opens in 2006 on the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England, a setting of almost magical natural beauty, but Jack Luxton’s thoughts are of madness. He’s recalling the 65 head of healthy cattle that had to be shot and burned on his family’s old farm back in Devon. Mad cow disease crippled their precarious livelihood. Then his angry father died. Then terrorists flew planes into office buildings in New York. And now his brother, 30, has been killed while fighting in Iraq. It’s a ghastly collection of disparate events, separated by thousands of miles and significant degrees of import but connected by the rage that seems emblematic of our modern age.
The novel’s present-day action takes place in no more than a few hours, while Jack sits with his shotgun at the upstairs window looking out at the sea, waiting for his wife to drive home in the rain. But Swift splashes through time with abandon, following Jack’s tortuous thoughts on this dark morning as he considers how everything went off its hinges.
This is a writer who can turn the whole world around during a long sigh. Jack’s memories reach back to the lingering illness of his mother, who kept their 160-acre farm running. And even further back to the birth of his little brother, Tom. Stilled by grief, Jack recalls how intensely he loved that boy, how he admired him throughout their adolescence and how shaken he was when Tom ran off to enlist on his 18th birthday. Now called by the army to collect his brother’s body, Jack considers the sweep of their shared history, a flood of memories that threatens to disrupt the new life he and his wife have constructed. It’s a bracing exploration of the conflicted feelings of fraternal love and jealousy.
Swift is a careful curator of the tiny elements of our lives that become freighted with meaning over time: a distant relative’s war medal, a dog’s old blanket, the hole in a giant oak tree. They’re just stray bits, inconsequential until they’ve been polished for years in these characters’ minds, and Swift has developed an elegantly recursive style to convey that ruminative action. Even short strands of dialogue are recalled and probed with incredulity the way we do when we just can’t fathom how a loved one could possibly have said such a thing. “There’s a version of it all that Jack tells only himself,” Swift writes, “an over-and-over revisited version that allows more room for detail and for speculation.”
In summary, this may sound like a novel that suffers from tedious repetition, but the story draws us forward by suspending the revelations that are haunting Jack’s thoughts. We work backwards, exploring the wound before discovering the cause. In “Tomorrow,” that technique failed miserably because the final disclosure was so tiny, so completely out of proportion to the anxious fretting we had to endure for hundreds of pages, but “Wish You Were Here” is a vastly more complex story. It doesn’t rest on one great announcement but on the accretion of a lifetime’s worth of little cruelties and subsequent tragedies that convey the intricacies of mourning, the capacity of sorrow to make us harm those we love.
And yet there are moments of plaintive comedy here, too, that render Jack’s distress all the more affecting. Riding panicked through a boisterous city, he can almost appreciate what a country bumpkin he is. Large and painfully self-conscious, he feels deeply ill at ease during the Army’s repatriation ceremony, which manages to be solemn even while showcasing the weirdness of our death rituals.
Fans will recall the author’s Booker-winning “Last Orders” (1996), which also dealt with a man’s remains, but here Swift has produced a more honed and driven story. Honestly, I can’t remember when I cared so passionately about how a novel might end. It’s impossible not to echo the “great, unearthly howl” that grief rips from Jack.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
WISH YOU WERE HERE By Graham Swift Knopf. 319 pp. $25