Combining the problems faced in the farming community in recent years and the Iraq war, I found this to be a stunning piece of writing. Often heart-wrenching, but also gripping, I found it a moving tale. Sure, it's not the cheeriest of reads this summer, but I was genuinely moved.
When we first meet former Devon farmer, Jack Luxton, on a caravan park on the Isle of Wight it's pretty clear that he and his wife, Ellie have had a pretty big problem. Subtle things like, he's sitting on his bed with a loaded shotgun behind him and she's cowering in the car in a lay-by sheltering from the torrential rain, kind of give you that impression. But what exactly has transpired you'll have to wait until near the end to find out and what happens next is only revealed in the final gripping pages. In the meantime, we get their past stories, their families' stories and how they came to the Isle of Wight.
Jack is a sort of Heathcliff type of character. He's the strong, silent type and to be fair, if only he and Ellie had talked a bit more about stuff along the way, things might have been a bit different for them both. Both have been through a fair bit, and Jack in particular has had an eventful few years to put it mildly. Then again, we wouldn't have had this book otherwise, would we?
It's not a cheery read by any stretch of the imagination. Swift makes frequent hinted suggestions to things (for example cows were killed as a preventative measure in the mad-cow outbreak, not because they were sick, while one of the arguments for the Iraq war was effectively a preventative measure) but these are never rammed home - they just float around the reader's mind. It's so much more satisfying when the reader has to so some work!
The author is also singularly inappropriately named when it comes to his plot. Absolutely nothing about his story-telling is 'swift'. Rather, it's drawn out in meticulous and often quite painful detail as the characters seem to encounter each event in real time. The plot always has pathos, but seldom pace; it's totally captivating. It progresses very much at a rural pace rather than an urban pace. But there's such a beautiful tone to the writing and it's so moving that I cannot imaging it failing to move anyone. And for all the slowness of the story unfolding the final chapters are completely gripping and you really don't know what's going to happen - although you will have a few ideas. If that makes it all sound a bleak read, then that's my own inadequacies - it's far from bleak. There's too much humanity in it for that, but it is sad and it is moving.
It's a book about many things - the attachment to the land, the decline of rural England and changing priorities, but it's also a very human story. Jack's story.
(4.5 stars) In this novel about the many aspects of death, Booker Prize winner Graham Swift offers no humor to leaven the heavy mood or the profound sadness which the novel evokes. In addition, his main character and many peripheral characters are inarticulate people who think in clichés and deal with the everyday challenges of their lives in "tried and true" fashion. These characters have few, if any, thoughts about the larger world, or even a recognition of how they might differ, in the grand scheme of life, from the animals on their farm.
Still, Swift creates a stunning novel which inspires the reader's empathy, and the novel becomes, ultimately, a study of how an unreflective everyman handles the disasters that fate and time deal out to him, and over which he believes he has no control. The novel opens in a caravan park owned by Jack and Ellie Luxton on the Isle of Wight where thirty-nine-year-old Jack, the only remaining member of his family, has just received a letter from the military saying that his younger brother Tom has died in Iraq. Jack's family has never been open with their feelings, and as the author's focus swirls backward, forward, and around again from Jack and Tom's childhood to the present, Swift depicts the family's long history and their values. They have owned their land in Devon since 1614, but after two epidemics - most recently, mad cow disease - they have lost their entire healthy herd, sacrificed to protect the nation as a whole. Jack and his wife have sold the farm and moved to the caravan park which they now own. When Jack goes alone to the mainland to receive Tom's "repatriated" remains and oversee the burial in Marleston, the Devon town where Jack and Tom grew up, he reacts powerfully (and uncharacteristically) to the events.
Through Jack, Swift creates an intimate portrait of people who have rarely had the leisure or the inclination to contemplate life's big questions, and as Jack loses his bearings emotionally, Swift creates an almost symphonic narrative in which many facets of their lives and personalities sing out to create a grand picture of life on a larger scale. The many mysteries which intrigue the reader at the beginning of the novel are resolved as the points of view alternate between Jack and the other characters with whom he comes into contact.
Though this intimate, character-based novel lacks a strong plot, I found it completely absorbing. The author is careful not to wallow in sentimentality, however much the reader may respond emotionally to the characters' well-described predicaments. Mystical moments at the conclusion fit the narrative and reveal Jack's state of mind but leave the novel open to the charge that the conclusion is somewhat artificial in its execution, and Ellie's reasons for her failure to accompany Jack to the funeral are thin, at best. Though some peripheral characters are described in frustrating detail, I found the novel, overall, to be an almost unique literary closeup of the lives of ordinary people dealing with the complex problems of modern life, somehow muddling through even when they do not understand how they got where they are or what choices they may have.
on 16 August 2011
It took me quite some pages to get the hang of this book and I must say, since receiving other books, this one has fallen by the wayside. But then, I'm not a great lover of Graham Swift's style. I will go back to it, but at the moment, for me, it seems to lack drama and I can't say I care very much what happens to the characters.
on 19 November 2012
The title echoes the feelings of anti-hero Jack about key persons in his life. He first wrote "Wish you were here" as a 13-year old on a picture postcard to his lifelong girlfriend Ellie from the neighboring farm, when his beloved mother took him and kid brother Tom (5) on a beach-side holiday. It has a thrilling, scary ending and is full of drama.
In the 1990s, two adjoining, struggling Devon dairy-farms were hit by BSE, years later by foot-and-mouth disease. Twice, herds of perfectly healthy cows were destroyed; compensation was scant and came late. Cancer, suicide and desertion (Tom at age 18) reduce ownership of the farms to Ellie and Jack. They sell, pay off debts and move to the Isle of Wight to run a camp site with 32 caravans. Things go well for a decade. In winter they holiday in the Caribbean.
Then a letter arrives from the DoD: Tom has died at age 31, killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. His repatriation to an air force base and funeral and burial in Ellie and Jack's Devon home village cause a rift between them. A rift based on a single remark... This book is to be discovered, so this reader signs off here.
This enthralling novel deals intimately with broad concepts like security, resilience and the essence of love and death. Resilience is the domain of Ellie. Security covers many scenes and aspects in this brilliant novel, ranging from what Tom was doing to the occasional shivers of the wife of the new owner of Jack's former, thoroughly restored and electronically-secured farmhouse. Dealing with death is a private matter: both Ellie and Jack dissemble after Tom's death, and appear to lose it...
Great novel for reading groups.
on 9 September 2014
This was a Bookclub choice. I don't think I have seen more question marks in a novel, or brackets, which I found irritating after reading the book for a period of time, but it was a good way of creating the effect of the characters' thought processes, who, I thought were well developed and believable. (Of course this is subjective.). The staccato phrasing, however, (as you would hope) did manage to convey some very taut emotion. There were some very witty turns of phrase - "can you can have something up your sleeve if you've got nothing on?". However, the continuous repetition - rephrased naturally - of the thoughts and self-questioning of the characters (of whom there were relatively few) meant - for me - that this book was about twice as long as it needed to be. 6/10
Graham Swift is an outstanding writer, and an important one. It's impossible for him to write a dull word, and he doesn't here; however, something about 'Wish You Were Here' falls very slightly short of his own high standards.
It feels to me like a book which has been conceived of intellectually, but not fully felt. Swift has several themes he wishes to explore, and he creates a set of characters with which to do so. But the characters don't quite have their own life; they work very well for all the purposes Swift needs them for, but sometimes, in books, characters can burst out of the page and surprise you, and most probably their creators. None of the characters here is in danger of doing that.
Similarly, the structure feels too thought-out. The marital row feels like a device to drive the narrative forward; I didn't quite believe in it. And there are patterns and counterpoints in the structure which, while elegant, are not messy, as life is.
Much of the story is told in flashback, and in a very circumlocutory style. A narrator is telling you that someone is remembering a time in which they thought something about someone else who seemed to think something else... circles within circles. Sometimes I just wanted to say 'enough! Let's move on!'Yet when it does get moving there are scenes in 'Wish You Were Here' which are truly great. The repatriation scene is tackled with perfect pace and incredible tenderness, and I couldn't stop myself from crying when Luke is taken into the field. But the material about the family with the second home is rather cliched, and the mother's 'strange moment' at the end comes across as just a bit silly.
It's not quite the masterpiece Graham Swift could so provably have produced, but it's a very good novel, and an ambitious one. I just wish it was as fully felt as it was planned; that Swift's imagination had been engaged in writing it as much as his intellect.
on 15 March 2012
The writing is beautiful, the characters real and the story is achingly sad, however I found the pace of this novel to be just too slow. Graham Swift is such a talented writer but this story crawled along and no amount of beautiful prose could save it for me. Eventually I just lost interest and stopped caring about the main character. In respect of the obvious quality I don't want to criticise, just to say that if you enjoy introspective and thoughtful literature that is happy to take a very long time to build up the many layers of its protagonists then this may be for you. I tried very hard, but in the end I made it only about 60% of the way through before conceding that this wasn't for me.
on 10 March 2016
Swift’s novel garnered a lot of praise from critics, some referring to it as a “serious rural novel,” as having “a lyrical sense of place,” and praising its portrait of “landscape and its relationship with people.” Certainly it mainly has a rural setting – a caravan site on the Isle of Wight and a farm in north Devon – so to that extent it is a rural novel. There are nods to rural issues – the crises in farming as a result of BSE and foot-and-mouth; second-home ownership – but “Wish You Were Here” lacks the thickness of lived rural life that made Swift’s earlier “Waterland” such a good novel. As for its evocation of a sense of place and the relationship between people and landscape, take away the place names and the mention of the red earth and this could be almost anywhere in agricultural England – there is next to nothing that is redolent of north Devon and contemporary rural life-ways, or of the characters’ embeddedness in the places they inhabit. It is a picture of rural life by someone who does not live it.
Much more convincing is Swift’s portrait of a certain kind of masculinity. Its central character is a stoical man, and the story revolves around his relationships with his father and brother, and his wife. These are not garrulous people. They have interior lives, but seldom voice their thoughts and feelings. One might say they are suspicious of language’s ability to express feelings; they may even be suspicious of feelings full stop. Taciturn and even curmudgeonly, for them, what is not said can have as much if not greater force than what is said. And the un-said comes to have the greatest force of all. Skipping back and forth through time, as a single event forces disparate memories to resurface, we are given a picture of a man’s struggle to cope with the past and the un-said. It is this – rather than its evocation of rural life – that makes “Wish You Were Here” worth reading.
I've greatly enjoyed the other Graham Swift novels I've read - beginning with the classic Waterland, through the elegaic Last Orders and the (in my opinion) even more remarkable The Light of Day. He's a master craftsman as a writer, weaving a story with great skill from a few simple words that bury feelings under the surface like emotional depth-charges. His plots aren't light-hearted but heartfelt and, whilst some might find them depressing, I've felt a strong resonance in his books.
Like this one. Jack and Tom grow up on a Devon cattle farm that is devastated by disease in the nineties; Tom leaves to be a soldier in Iraq, and Jack stays on with his irascible, disappointed father (and Ellie, daughter of the neighbouring farmer). What happens to the soldier, the farm, the father, and to Jack and Ellie is played out in this delicately-written novel. The author cycles through the characters' viewpoints and chops up the timeline so events get revisited in flashback, and connected with other events at other times. Once again, it's reasonably obvious from the outline that it's not necessarily going to be a happy story, but I found it a richly rewarding and emotional one that was worth staying with right up to the skillfully managed and suspenseful climax.
The book begins with several images of carnage: the slaughter of thousands of cattle, first because of Mad Cow Disease; then again because of Foot-and-Mouth Disease; then 9/11; then, among the mass casualties of the First World War, the simultaneous deaths of two Luxton brothers, George and Fred, commemorated on the war-memorial in Marleston, a Devonshire village. There is a story about these two - how very close they were in life and in death. They were the great-uncles of the brothers Jack and Tom Luxton two generations later; and between those two there was the same closeness, but with the difference that they do not die together. They had both left the stricken farm in Devonshire: Jack had sold it after the death of his gruff father and now ran a holiday caravan park on the Isle of Wight; Tom had joined the army and was killed in Iraq, and the devastating effect which, in many different ways, this has on Jack's mind and on his marriage to Ellie is one of the main themes in the book. A deeply moving part of it is the long passage about Jack's physical and mental journey from the Isle of Wight to the air base at Brize Norton in Oxforshire, where Tom's remains arrive, as, later, will be that about their funeral in their former home village of Marleston. On his way from Brize Norton to Marleston, Jack recalls terrible details of events which have so far been hidden from us.
This is a slow burner of a book. Though early on Jack has beside him in his bedroom a loaded gun which is obviously waiting to be discharged fairly soon - guns figure a lot in the story - it took some time before the story really began to grip me. Then revelations are dropped in at intervals which makes one go back to see the events recounted earlier on in a new perspective.
The Luxton family have always spoken laconically and have never said or written much, and Jack is "a big, slow man". One great quality of the book is to convey that, though he articulates so little, Jack's thoughts and feelings, of love and hate and grief and guilt, are so intense and tumultuous.