I’ve read a couple of books by Graham Swift: I discovered his Last Orders when it won the Booker (see my review at The Complete Booker) and I read and enjoyed Waterland with one of my online book groups. (It’s on the 1001 Books I Must Read list too). On the strength of that, I bought Tomorrow for the TBR and some Op Shop finds as well : The Sweet Shop Owner and Ever After.
So having established my credentials as an enthusiast, I’m not best pleased about having to admit that Wish You Were Here didn’t really appeal to me very much. It’s the story of a Devonshire farmer-turned-caravan-park-owner on the Isle of Wight, and his fraught relationships with everybody. The novel begins with the news that Jack Luxton’s estranged brother Tom has been killed in Iraq, and this news is the catalyst for an appalling argument with his wife Ellie. There is a great deal of death and estrangement in the story and as the backstory is revealed the reader feels a growing sense of alarm about how Ellie’s flight from Jack might be resolved.
Jack is one of those bovine silent types, bottling up emotion for decades and so unwilling to invest in relationships for fear of losing them that he isn’t even willing to do something as ordinary as having children. His is a world of missed opportunities to sort things out with other people, and without Ellie’s more optimistic dynamism he might still have been hanging around with nothing-to-do on his father’s farm (which was devastated by the BSC and then the foot-and-mouth cattle epidemic and cull). For most of the story the 3rd person narration concentrates on Jack’s memories and introspections, so when another character is featured there is an odd moment of disconnect as if, like Jack, the reader has forgotten about the existence of anyone else or an alternative point-of-view. Jack is, after all, a man in deep distress, and his focus is hardly holistic.
As in his other novels, Swift’s realisation of place is masterly: the slush, mud and stink of the dairy farm; the windswept ‘Lookout’ with its tinny caravans; the repatriation ceremony and the bleak funeral are all superbly rendered. The intrusion of the leisured classes into rural England is neatly contrasted with a 500-year-old oak tree and the desertion of ‘holiday-home owners’ during the frigid months of winter. But the characterisation and plot seems too limited to bear the weight of the book: the people are all too lonely, fearful and bitter and Jack’s thoughts meander around a plot where very little actually happens.
© Lisa Hill