“I began with the concrete situation with which the book begins: A man staring from a bedroom window, a loaded shotgun on the bed behind him. I had to discover how he’d reached this extremity, and its outcome,” said Graham Swift in an interview to the Guardian, on his latest novel, Wish You Were Here.
Swift suggests that after having put in place a fixed starting point, he embarked on creating the story around which this man revolved. This could be a plausible reason to explain how this story progresses — peevishly moving back and forth in the memory of a stoical and reclusive protagonist, Jack Luxton, farmer-turned-proprietor, who is haunted by his most secret and troubled memories.
Swift’s Wish You Were Here opens in 2006 when Jack, now in Lookout Caravan Park on the Isle of Wight, drifts back to the memory of “cattle going mad all over England” — the famous mad cow disease crisis. Son of an “unsentimental” dairy farmer, Michael Luxton, Jack recollects how the epidemic led to the downfall of the livelihood of prosperous farmers in his native countryside of Devon. In fact, it was the reason Michael shot himself — with the same shotgun that Jack is holding on to at the start of the story. “The funeral pyres of burning cattle” also remind him of watching on telly the collapse of the twin towers in New York on a September day.
To begin with, the story moves in circles – not an inch forward or back – as Jack reminisces about random events centred on the good old days of his Luxton childhood. Luxton was “a name that had its glory”, in Devon. His mother Vera constantly reminds Jack and his younger brother, Tom, of their long pedigree — about their two uncles who died gloriously in the First World War and have their names inscribed on the local war memorial. Jack, with somewhat more uncertainty, also recalls memories of growing up with his neighbourhood companion and now wife, Ellie.
Vera’s death is almost like the harbinger of impending doom in the family. In fact, Jack thinks the epidemic mad cow disease certified the “ruin that had been creeping up on them anyway” after Vera’s death. The story now turns dark.
It traces the distressing journey of Jack after Michael’s suicide and the epidemic. He has been enticed by Ellie into selling Jebb Farmhouse, the Devon farm estate that was bequeathed to him, and move to her uncle’s caravan site on the Isle of Wight. Fully 13 years later, Jack travels back to the familiar terrain of Devon, but this time it is to perform the last rites of his younger brother and soldier, Tom, who has been killed in the Iraq War. Tom had abandoned his family to join the army and never stayed in touch thereafter, not even when he received the news of his father’s suicide.
After receiving a letter from the army about his brother’s “repatriation”, Jack makes this crucial journey alone. He attends the formal ceremony of repatriation by the army at Oxfordshire, and travels to his home county for Tom’s cremation. This journey is tough, not least because Jack is followed by Tom’s ghost. He imagines and hallucinates, simultaneously recalling incidents such as Michael shooting the family pet dog Luke to release him from enfeebling old age, the night when Jack helped Tom elope from the house, and when Michael shot himself, puncturing a hole in the trunk on which his body rested. These incidents serve to add a gothic touch to this melancholy tale but they also evoke drama, mystery and tension as the story heads towards its catastrophic climax.
Haunted by all his past fears and memories, Jack’s mind creates and debunks mysteries. In the final scene (which is also the opening scene of the book), Jack confronts Ellie and now he’s the one with a shotgun lying on his bed. Their conversation is kept bleak and shadowy. Their misery and heaviness weigh upon the reader as much as do the characters.
Wish You Were Here is a compelling read, albeit after you get around the somewhat circuitous and soporific beginning. The story hardly ever picks up pace, yet the narration is spellbinding with high drama, tragedy and a hint of mystery. Death and remembrance make the novel melancholic and emotionally draining. With its minimal dialogue, the ambiguity and tragedy keep you turning the pages.
WISH YOU WERE HERE
Alfred A Knopf
319 pages; $25