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Friday, May 11, 2012

Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here, the latest from Graham Swift, is one of those novels that take place largely inside the heads of its main characters – when there is much of what might be called “action,” it is usually part of the book’s alternating flashbacks recounting Luxton family history.  Swift, as usual, tells his story in methodical fashion, but he constructs here a first-rate drama, layer-by-layer, that will reward patient readers with its ultimate impact.

The novel is told from Jack Luxton’s point-of-view.  Jack and his wife run a tourist campsite on the Isle of Wight, but the couple grew up on adjoining farms in a remote part of the English countryside, and their current lifestyle is nothing like the one they left behind.  The couple has much in common, things that should help keep them together but, as Wish You Were Here begins, Ellie is nowhere to be found and Jack stands gazing out his bedroom window, loaded shotgun on the bed behind him, expectantly awaiting her return.  What he plans to use the shotgun for is not at all clear at this point, and learning what placed him in that position will require a bit of patience, but it is well worth the reading effort involved.

Jack Luxton, it seems, has witnessed the absolute dismantling of his world and, he is not at all certain that the life with which he replaced his old one makes for all that good a swap.  Growing up on a small dairy farm is not an easy life for a boy, but Jack, his brother, and his parents managed to cope well enough for most of his boyhood.  Despite the demands of dairy farming (cows have to be milked every morning and they are not happy about waiting for it to happen), Jack can easily picture living on the farm for the rest of his life.  The property, after all, has been in his family for generations and, as the eldest son, he feels the obligation to keep it that way.  Regrettably, this is not to be.

Graham Swift
Jack, Ellie, and their families are relatively simple people; their whole lifestyle tends to make them more insular than those that grow up in more urban areas, but that does not mean they do not feel emotions strongly.  The problem is that they do not, at least in this story, seem to be able to express to each other what they are feeling, part of the reason that Jack ends up with a loaded shotgun on his bed. 

Much of the satisfaction of reading a Graham Swift novel comes from the way that Swift describes what seems like an unimportant fact or incident only to reveal later, little piece by little piece, what that fact really means and why it happened.  It is a little like looking at the picture on a jigsaw puzzle’s box and then putting all the pieces in place – only then, can the impact of the whole be picture felt.  
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