Eventually, Graham Swift's Wish You Were Here becomes a compelling novel. Swift's gamble on a jumbled, backward-glancing structure is unfortunate, given the nuanced insights of what belatedly becomes a heartfelt story of love and loss.
After nine books of fiction, most of them wonderful, the Booker-Prize-winning Swift has no trouble with the novel's immediate opening. In just over seven pages, Wish You Were Here combines dead animals (two generations of English cattle culls), dead parents, absent siblings, the varied guilts and pleasures of leaving home, a fleeing spouse and a loaded shotgun weighting down an empty marriage bed.
Childhood sweethearts Jack Luxton and Ellie Merrick have sold their inherited, BSE-threatened farms in Devon to open a caravan park on the distant Isle of Wight. Swift's recurrent interest in the long reach of family and homestead finds Jack's happiness with Ellie destabilized by the death of his errant brother Tom, a sniper in Iraq. Ellie flees their combined home and business to sit staring out to sea in a highway lay-by, not quite leaving Jack and not quite staying.
Despite these gripping early pages, the majority of the novel teleports almost constantly through multiple backstories and never finds forward momentum.
Fiction is, as the art schools say, a time-based art. With its slippery narrative chronology (back then or then or then, not now) most of Wish You Were Here prepares a story instead of telling a story. Rather than watching self-imperilled characters make decisions, we're told about the decisions dramatically under-employed characters have already made. Swift's emotional barometer remains keen throughout this story of "uprooted stock," but choices are only made (not just revealed) in the novel's crammed final quarter. Too often, and for too long, the characters are clothed but inactive, stage actors sent out for publicity stills, not actual scenes.
Despite the tractionless plot, Swift's attention to the bittersweet accomplishment of self-exile comes to an excellent focus in his depiction of grief. The additional ceremonies (and legalities) of a military death graduate Jack's mourning, and make the official letter "just a rehearsal, a sort of fire drill" compared to the formal military visit.
Ultimately, Jack's grieving makes him question how much he really knew a brother who escaped a dysfunctional farm family by joining the army. For C.S. Lewis and his A Grief Observed, grief feels "so much like fear." For Swift's uprooted farmer, sibling grief feels like remorse. The repatriation ceremony of Tom's body is attended by viscounts and officers in ceremonial swords and a lone Jack, who feels like muttering, "I'm sorry, I'm very sorry." Jack's bereavement for a sibling ricochets off his half-dormant grief for his parents.
Swift also provides a quiet, multifaceted disquisition on gun violence. After two of the three Luxton men have used guns ably and lethally, will a third?
Novels are a lot like romantic relationships: A great past and promising future can only justify a static present for so long. The recurrent lack of present-tense action mires the reader in flashbacks within flashbacks. Emotional memory may resemble these neural shortcuts, where one decision resembles another from the past, but Wish You Were Here is simply too amorphous.
Fortysomething Jack repeatedly thinks of Ellie proposing they buy a caravan park when they were 21, often by recalling his own caravan holidays at 13. When Ellie half-leaves Jack, we get a short paragraph of her current indecision then plenty of attention to another flight in her past and even more on a memory-fantasy (what she once wanted to do but didn't).
On Jack's eventual grief odyssey, even the novel's grammar avoids the present tense: "Had Bob Ireton and Jack found themselves together … Jack would have been …" Several emotional seeds are planted, but only one (late-blooming) crop is harvested. Dead and absconding mothers leave Jack and Ellie feeling stuck on farms that dwindle during mad-cow culls. We're told they feel obligated to stay and mind their taciturn fathers, but we're not shown any genuine test of competing loyalties.
In content, if not this form, Swift remains an excellent writer for the to and fro of romantic love. Ellie "knew the places in him, she had him." Swift has these characters and their places, but we need to see them do more than just recollect.
Darryl Whetter teaches at Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia. His latest book is The Push & the Pull, a novel of love, death and bicycling.