Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift. NY: Vintage, 2011.
The plot and substance of Swift's most recent novel slowly rolls out at a pace and transparency that echoes the slow, deliberate, withdrawn nature of its main character, Jack Luxton. It's setting is a remote English dairy farm in farming community in Devon. As the novel opens, Jack is remembering the first two tragedies of his life, his mother's early death and the destruction of the family's cattle herd as ordered by the British government following the first signs of mad cow disease on another farm in a different remote area of England. Jack is 15 at his mother's death and he lives with his father and his brother Tom, eight years his junior. Jack's father never recovers from losing his wife and the boys suffer for it. In the opening pages of the novel, Jack recalls that as the three surviving Luxton men watch their cattle herd burn, his father does not offer any comfort to his sons; he does not put his arms around the boys. "He'd looked hard at his feet, at the ground he was standing on, and spat." Many years later, when Tom is 17, the boys beloved dog has aged and weakened. The father decides to shoot the dog. Tom cannot forgive his father for how he handles this final act toward their dog and he decides to leave the farm as soon as he turns18. On his next birthday, he leaves the farm to join the army. Jack's father disowns Tom and, when the father later commits suicide, he leaves Jack the farm and all the land. Tom doesn't return for the funeral although Tom writes to him and informs him about the will.
Jack's father's death leaves Jack the last Luxton in Devon, and he would be all alone on the farm except that his childhood sweetheart, Ellie, lives with her father on the neighboring farm. Her mother left their farm when Ellie was quite young, and although Ellie never sees her again, her mother leaves her some property on the Isle of Wight after she dies. When her father dies not long after Jack's father, Ellie convinces Jack that they should sell up and move to the Isle of Wight. Jack can do this, but it weighs on him that he sells his birthright without consulting Tom first. Ten years later, Jack receives a letter from the government announcing Tom's death.
Although the novel begins at the point following this final tragedy of Jack's life, the novel is nearly over before Swift brings the reader back to that point with all of the threads finally knit together. Tom's death leads Jack to look back over his life and lay out and fit together the pieces that have brought him to a near fatal crisis. Questions are raised throughout the course of the narrative and the details that provide the answers to the questions are only slowly revealed as the narrative moves backwards and forwards through time.
Jack's past is an enormous burden, one that he finds nearly impossible to bear. Jack's head and heart are full of "what if's." But the novel is more about loss and grief than about Jack's guilt. Tom's death in Iraq is in stark contrast to the deaths of two earlier Luxton brothers who died during the first world war. One of the brothers received a Medal of Honor posthumously, but the family and village considered it a shared honor. Their deaths were remembered yearly for more than a generation. But Tom's death leaves only questions of why and how and to what end. And so the losses that define Jack are losses shared by the nation. The loss of a way of life as farming becomes unsustainable and the loss of loved ones at home and at war, humans and animals. Jack's father was not the only farmer to commit suicide as the government instructed the destruction of cattle and livelihoods. Just so, Tom is not the only death during a war. The loss of life, returning with honor, but from a war that is little understood or supported. In Jack's mind, the events of September 2001 aligns with the loss of his mother, the first devastation of cattle because of Mad Cow Disease, the second devastation years later because of Foot-and-Mouth disease, and finally Tom's death.
"Wish You Were Here" is a sentence on a postcard, but it is also a cry of pain for those who have been lost, and in particular, it is Jack's pain as he considers the possible loss of Ellie who has, for her own little understood reasons, refused to join him as he goes to receive Tom's body and attend Tom's funeral. Jack's odyssey to bury his brother is also an odyssey through his past. The act of burying his brother and his reliving of the past drive him to madness, but in the end it is a madness that draws him closer to Tom, and it is this closeness that saves him in the end.
So much loss and grief and sadness--Jack's and England's and the world's. The ghosts of the past reveal the hollowness of the present time. And yet .... the story isn't over.
In our society, the events of 2001 changed many things including the priorities of government. The loss of a particular way of life is trivialized and forgotten in the wake of the disaster, but tragedies surround us and as they happen they are of no less consequence than that of 2001, but perhaps more easily forgotten. Their repercussions radiate out none the less--over time and over space. Jack is chiseled away at, sculpted by each event and loss, he is formed by tragedy almost to the point of no formation at all... and yet he survives.