Wish You Were Here

  • Graham Swift
  • Knopf
  • 319 pp.

Using a complex triple narrative, this novel weaves together a universal story of brotherly love.

Reviewed by Harriet Douty Dwinell

I read Wish You Were Here with a mounting sense of dread, as if I had entered a deserted house from which strange noises emitted from an upstairs room, apprehensive not only about what will happen next but what dark secrets lay within. This sense of dread, this compulsion to read on, did not begin at once. The novel is something of a slog until you understand what’s going on and begin to care about the characters. That happens later, big time, because the novel’s true power does not rest on mounting suspense but on an aching portrayal of human beings, the kind described in King Lear, when Lear, delirious with madness in the midst of a raging storm, cries out as he looks upon the beggar Tom, poor Tom: Is unaccommodated man no more than such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou?

Wish You Were Here, Graham Swift’s 11th book, his third novel since the 1996 Booker prizewinning Last Orders, begins with madness. “There is no end to madness,” thinks Jack Luxton, its main character. “It could take years before it flared up in human beings.” Eighteen years have passed since Mad Cow Disease destroyed the viability of Jebb Farm, farmed by the Luxtons since 1614, and all the surrounding dairy farms, including that of his wife Ellie. Jack feels a dormant madness has “flared up” in Ellie and himself, triggered by the news that Jack’s brother Tom has been killed in Iraq, his military vehicle tripping a roadside bomb.

The story takes place along three time lines. The shortest is the present, November 2006, which depicts Jack Luxton, now 39, sitting in an upstairs bedroom of a house on the Isle of Wight, rifle at the ready, angrily on the lookout for Ellie to return after a wrenching morning argument.

The second narrative begins several weeks earlier, the moment Jack has been notified that Tom, eight years his junior, “better, quicker, smarter at pretty well everything” than the thick, big boned, bovine Jack, had been killed. Jack had not seen his brother since Tom deserted the farm to join the army the day he turned 18. This story line follows Jack’s journey across the Channel to mainland England for Tom’s “repatriation” ceremony and subsequent funeral at the Devon farming village where Jack, Tom, and Ellie were raised. This narrative ends when Jack returns to Lookout Cottage on the Isle of Wight, where Ellie had inherited a seaside caravan camp.

Underpinning these two narratives is a third made up of everything else, all that stuff that human beings carry around in their heads, and which wells up in disjointed memory throughout the book. It is only when the reader — or this reader — is in possession of a critical mass of stuff and has sorted it out that the narrative takes on its urgent appeal.

An ambiguous tale of heroic action in World War I shapes and defines the Luxton family. Two brothers, George and Fred Luxton, have been killed at the Somme. One was to earn a medal for “conspicuous gallantry,” a DCM, or Distinguished Conduct Medal, while the other was “merely ripped apart by bullets.” The captain, who could never tell the Luxton brothers apart, hastily attributed the gallantry to George, “the more patriotic name,” intending to verify the matter in the morning. But he himself was killed during the night, and George’s name was inscribed on the memorial cross in the village, his descendants receiving the DCM medal, while Fred’s name vanished — or would have vanished had not Vera, Jack and Tom’s mother, embellished the story so that it became a tale of loyalty between two brothers. If the boys had survived, Vera told Jack, even before Tom was born, “George, who had the medal, would have … broken it in two” and given his brother half. “‘What’s mine is yours,’ he’d have said.” When Tom was born, Jack hardly knew where he ended and Tom began. On the surface, Tom seems less bound by brotherly love, yet Wish You Were Here explores a shifting loci of heroic and thoughtless behavior, of true obedience and blind loyalty. No clearcut prodigal son and older brother live on these pages.

Objects, such as the medal, assume iconic stature: the Big Bedroom, a tartan blanket, a picture postcard from a seaside resort. This postcard had come from Brigwell Bay, where Vera had taken the boys, then ages 13 and 6, to give them “a holiday, a seaside holiday that when they’d grown up, they’d always have to remember.” It was there, on a Formica tabletop in a cramped caravan that Jack had written to Ellie, his mother prompting the language “Wish You Were Here.” More often, unfortunately, the boys remembered the time, after Vera had died and Ellie’s mum had run off with another man, when a hardness set in. More often they remembered how Ellie’s father essentially pimped for his daughter, enabling Jack to have sex with her once or twice a week, giving her enough pleasure to keep her on the farm with him, the father, tending his house. More often they remembered the reaction of Michael Luxton, the boys’ father, after the cows had been slaughtered.  “If ever there was time when Jack’s dad might have put his two arms round his two sons, that was it,” Swift writes. Instead, he “looked hard at his feet, at the ground he was standing on, and spat.”

Memories such as these flood Jack’s mind as he steps on the English mainland for Tom’s repatriation, dressed uncomfortably in a suit and black tie, the DCM next to his breast. Navigating through dense urban areas, he begins to experience the onset of hallucination and madness. By the time he reaches the airfield where the remains of Tom and the two others killed with him will be received in a formal ceremony with full military regalia, he has become acutely conscious of himself as an outsider, unaccountably guilty in some way of his father’s death, complicit, perhaps, in Tom’s. He notices the other mourners, whom he calls “civilians” to distinguished them from the plumed military personnel and the dukes and earls who are decked out to honor the dead. These civilians, Jack now observes, have gathered together into “clusters,” and even though Tom, a corporal, ranked over the other two dead, Jack now worries that “he was the third cluster, a cluster of one.” While he feels a solidarity with the other mourners, he also experiences “a dreadful, shaming isolation, that his cluster was just him.” Suddenly, he sees Major Richards, the man who came to the Isle of Wight to announce Tom’s death, “mercifully” at his side, “helping Jack to compensate, so far as was possible, for Jack’s being just a cluster of one.

While Jack progressively goes clinically mad, Ellie goes mad with regret and longing. The novel may belong more to the Luxton brothers, but Graham Swift has presented an affecting portrait of Ellie, who courageously strives for a small piece of the world, something she can call her own.  Hopelessly in love with Jack from childhood, she never felt he was completely hers. As she sees it, “Jack … was a slave to his father, and he was his mother’s favourite … and there was this big chunk of him anyway that belonged with his brother. How much did that leave for Ellie?” But when Vera died and Tom joined the army, she began to hope even as she lay in terror that Tom might return. She was glad when Tom died.

Split-second timing — the word said or unsaid, the action done or not done — haunts the novel like an unseen ghost. Timing is crucial as the novel rushes toward its terrifying and compelling climax. Tom sits in an upstairs bedroom like a sniper, rifle at hand, while Ellie, in the Cherokee at the top of Holn Cliffs, a storm raging around her, ponders, like Lear, the release that will come from just falling over. Suddenly, overwhelmed by the terror that Jack might kill himself, Ellie races toward the cottage, filled with remorse, wishing, for the first time, that Tom had not died. Had she really wished him not here? “Oh Tom! O poor, poor Tom,” she cries out, as she rushes blindly toward the cottage. Jack, having seen the lights on Ellie’s car as it made its way up the winding road, rushes down the stairs rifle still in hand, knowing what he has to do. Both head toward the fate that awaits them.

Wish You Were Here begins and ends at a seaside resort, but it is no beach read, a book to be quickly consumed and discarded. Nor is it a book to be read for its subject matter, for I suspect that few Americans are interested in English farm life at the end of the last century, though the images of dead cows piling up on the landscape, a scene repeated on the battlefields of Iraq, are memorable. Wish You Were Here goes far beyond these easy categories to a universality that touches the naked core of humankind — poor, bare, forked that it is.

Harriet Douty Dwinell, a Washington writer and editor, is director of editorial board of The Washington Independent Review of Books.

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