by Graham Swift
Paperback (8 Jan 2013), 336 pages.
From the prizewinning author of the acclaimed Last Orders, The Light of Day, and Waterland, a powerfully moving new novel set in present-day England, but against the background of a global "war on terror" and about things that touch our human core.
On an autumn day in 2006, on the Isle of Wight, Jack Luxton - once a farmer, now the proprietor of a seaside caravan park - receives the news that his brother Tom, not seen for years, has been killed in combat in Iraq. The news will have its far-reaching effects for Jack and his wife, Ellie, and compel Jack to make a crucial journey: to receive his brother's remains, but also to return to the land of his past and of his most secret, troubling memories. A gripping, hauntingly intimate, and compassionate story that moves toward a fiercely suspenseful climax, Wish You Were Here translates the stuff of headlines into heartwrenching personal truth.
There is no end to madness, Jack thinks, once it takes hold. Hadnt those experts said it could take years before it flared up in human beings? So, it had flared up now in him and Ellie.
Sixty-five head of healthy-seeming cattle that finally succumbed to the rushed-through culling order, leaving a silence and emptiness as hollow as the morning Mum died, and the small angry wisp of a thought floating in it: Well, theyd better be right, those experts, it had better damn well flare up some day or this will have been a whole load of grief for nothing.
Healthy cattle. Sound of limb and udder and hoofand mind. Not one of them mad as far as I ever saw, Dad had said, as if it was the start of one of his rare jokes and his face would crack into a smile to prove it. But his face had looked like simply cracking anyway and staying cracked, and the words he might have said, by way of a punchline, never left his lips, though Jack thinks now that he heard them. Or it was his own silent joke to himself. Or its the joke hes only arrived at now; We must be the mad ones.
And if ever there was a time when Jacks dad might have put his two arms round his two sons, that was it. His arms were certainly long enough, even for his sons big shouldersboth brothers out of the same large Luxton mould, though with all of eight years between them. Tom would have been fifteen then, but growing fast. And Jack, though it was a fact he sometimes wished to hide, even to reverse, already had a clear inch over his father.
The three of them had stood there, like the only life left, in the yard at Jebb Farm.
But Michael Luxton hadnt put his arms round his two sons. Hed done what hed begun to do, occasionally, only after his wifes death. Hed looked hard at his feet, at the ground he was standing on, and spat.
And Jack, who long ago took his last look at that yard, looks now from an upstairs window at a grey sea, at a sky full of wind-driven rain, but sees for a moment only smoke and fire.
Sixty-five head of cattle. Or, to reckon it another way (and never mind the promised compensation): ruin. Ruin, at some point in the not-so-distant future, the ruin that had been creeping up on them anyway since Vera Luxton had died.
Cattle going mad all over England. Or being shoved by the hundred into incinerators for the fear and the risk of it. Who would have imagined it? Who would have dreamed it? But cattle arent people, thats a fact. And when trouble comes your way, at least you might think, though its small comfort and precious little help: Well, weve had our turn now, our share.
But years later, right here in this seaside cottage, Jack had switched on the TV and said, Ellie, come and look at this. Come and look, quick. It was the big pyre at Roak Moor, back in Devon. Thousands of stacked-up cattle, thousands more lying rotting in fields. The thing was burning day and night. The smoke would surely have been visible, over the far hills, from Jebb. Not to mention the smell being carried on the wind. And someone on the TVanother of those expertswas saying that burning these cattle might still release into the air significant amounts of the undetected agent of BSE. Though it was ten years on, and this time the burnings were for foot-and-mouth. Which people werent known to get. Yet.
Well, Jack, Ellie had said, stroking the back of his neck, did we make a good move? Or did we make a good move?
But hed needed to resist the strange, opposite feeling: that he should have been there, back at Jebb, in the thick of it, it was his proper place.
BSE, then foot-and-mouth. What would have been the odds? Those TV pictures had looked like scenes from hell. Flames leaping up into the night. Even so, cattle arent people. Just a few months later Jack had turned on the telly once again and called to Ellie to come and look, as people must have been calling out, all over the world, to whoever was in the next room, Drop what youre doing and come and look at this.
Excerpted from Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift. Copyright © 2012 by Graham Swift. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- "Wish you were here is a powerful phrase in the novel. Why is it so significant?
- Jack says,
cattle arent people, thats a fact (page 4). But in what ways in the novel are cattle like people, or vice versa?
- What parallels can you draw between Jack and Tom and the earlier pair of Luxton brothers?
- To become the proprietor of the very opposite thing to that deep-rooted farmhouse. Holiday homes, on wheels. (page 29) What is Swift telling us through Jacks observation?
- What does their Caribbean holiday symbolize to Ellie? To Jack?
- Did Jack really want to leave Devon, ten years earlier? If Ellie hadnt suggested the Isle of Wight, what do you think might have happened?
- Before they move, Jack sells the ancestral Luxton cradle, but keeps the shotgun and the medal. Why?
- Madness comes up again and againmad-cow disease, the madness of war, the possibility that Jack has gone mad. What point is Swift making?
- Time shifts frequently over the course of the novel, hopscotching across decades. How does Swift use these shifts to expand and deepen the story?
- Why does Ellie refuse to accompany Jack back to Devon?
- Why is putting down Luke such a pivotal act for Tom and Jack?
- What do we learn when Swift shifts from Jacks point of view to othersMajor Richardss, the hearse drivers, Bob Iretons? What do we learn from the brief section told from Toms perspective?
- At several points, Swift writes extended hypothetical passageswhat might have happened if one character had said or done something slightly different. What effect does this have? How does it help to fully form the characters?
- How does the Robinsons transformation of Jebb Farm work as a metaphor for twenty-first-century life?
- . . . anyone (including the owners of Jebb Farmhouse, had they been in occupation) might have seen two hand-prints on the top rail, one either side of the black-lettered name. (page 267) What do Jacks hand-prints symbolize?
- Security means different things to the Luxtons and the Robinsons. Which definition do you think Swift endorses?
- What does the medal represent? What does it mean when Jack tosses it into the sea?
- Does Tom really believe Ellie had a hand in Jimmys death? Why does he say it?
- Toms ghost plays a major role in the novels final scene. What does he represent?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
I seem to write novels that are domestic and undomestic, rooted and uprooted at the same time. In Wish You Were Here all this is focused in the
paradoxical word "repatriation".
- Graham Swift, in an
interview with The
Often, repatriation is used to describe the ceremonial process of a soldier, killed while in service in a foreign country, being returned home for burial. More broadly, repatriation can also represent the journey a person takes to return to their roots - their place of origin or citizenship. Graham Swift skillfully weaves both definitions of the term into Wish You Were Here, as he portrays a soldier's final journey home, and his brother's more symbolic travels to meet him there. In this ninth novel, Swift returns to the same motifs - broken family relationships, English landscapes, and an internal narrative based on memory - that run through nearly all of his books.
Jack Luxton's brother, Tom, was killed in service in Iraq, and Jack must leave his adopted home on the Isle of Wight and return to the place of his own origins. He will meet the plane bringing his brother home and attend the hastily arranged funeral he has coordinated, back in his home village. Jack's road trip to meet his brother's body provides time for reflection, and the tragedies sustained within the Luxton family slowly unfold during his travels.
The story opens rather bleakly: "There is no end to the madness, Jack thinks, once it takes hold." Jack is looking out his bedroom window. On the bed beside him, a loaded shotgun rests. A box of cartridges is ready, just in case. While he waits for his wife, Ellie, to return, Jack reflects on the choices he has made, and the defining moments of his life and family, from very recent memories to times much further past.
Swift uses the third-person narrative, but switches perspectives - from Jack, to Ellie, to Tom to several other characters. Jack is a stoic man of few words, not a strong communicator. Early on, a teenaged Jack has trouble writing a simple postcard to Ellie, while on holiday with his mum and brother. His mother lends her support to the task and Jack scribbles "Wish you were here," unaware that this is the most common thing he could have said, even if it is the truth. Swift's narrative tone creates some detachment, which is wholly appropriate to Jack's character, but could be a hindrance for some readers.
Some of Swift's very deliberate narrative devices could also prove a frustration for some readers who prefer a faster-paced, more direct telling, rather than a slow unfolding. The precipitating incident, the reason for why Jack is sitting on his bed with a loaded shotgun - which is where we immediately find ourselves in the opening pages of the novel - is withheld from readers for a very long time. The mystery - what is Jack going to do? - grips the reader through the very last page. For patient readers who are willing to trust Swift's methods and style of storytelling, this novel is an extremely rewarding experience.
By employing Jack's memory to tell the tale, we are quite literally inside his mind. At moments this can create a very visceral experience. Using fairly simple language, yet capturing the innermost feelings of his characters, Swift allows us to feel the depths of Jack's grief. There was one event in the story that actually brought tears to my eyes as I felt the pain and confusion of the moment being shared. There are only two other novels that have elicited this response from me: Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and last year's amazing debut novel by Amy Waldman, The Submission.
In reading Wish You Were Here I often thought of the opening line to Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Swift delivers a truly remarkable story about one very unhappy family. He is a deeply affecting writer, one who explores the murky crevices of his characters and their lives. He doesn't over-write his stories and has the wonderful ability of finding the humanity within the people he creates - allowing him to excavate personal tragedies and make them utterly relatable. While readers may not emerge emotionally unscathed, they will have had a deeply felt experience in reading this dark and aching novel that will resonate long after the last page is read.
Reviewed by Jennifer Dawson Oakes
I cannot tell you exactly how long after I finished this book that I sat, holding it, in stunned silence for - but it was light when I finished it and dark when I put it down. Some books can do that to you. This is one of them... Jack is a sort of Heathcliff type of character... Totally captivating... There's such a beautiful tone to the writing and it's so moving that I cannot imaging it failing to move anyone... Swift has already won one Man Booker prize - this deserves another nomination.
Swift's best since Waterland.... It begins to read like a thriller... Here Swift parcels out information like an Agatha Christie detective... The pace quickens and quickens. Almost against your will you find yourself racing through Swift's brief chapters.
Starred Review. Swift has written a slow-moving but powerful novel about the struggle to advance beyond grief and despair and to come to grips with the inevitability of change.
Starred Review. Profound empathy and understated eloquence mark a novel so artfully nuanced that the last few pages send the reader back to the first few, with fresh understanding.
Starred Review. Swift creates an elegant rawness with language that carries the reader through several layers of Jack's consciousness at once...
The Sunday Times
Wish You Were Here is a work of wide, ambitious span... Recounted in pages of affecting, powerfully sober prose... What gives [the novel] a compelling hold is Swift's real strength, the authenticity that hallmarks his portrayals of people in crisis.
The Daily Mail (UK)
An acutely observed, compelling read.
The Times (London)
Like its predecessors, most notably Waterland and Last Orders, Wish You Were Here is a book of quiet emotional integrity... The novel expertly explores the poignant contrast between irrepressible human hope and the constraints within which we live our finite lives.
An extraordinary novel... Novelists, being on the whole brainy people, like to write about brainy people, or make their characters better with words than they would be in real life... But as Swift's novels so brilliantly prove, just because someone doesn't have a way with words doesn't mean they can't experience deep emotion, or be powerfully moved by the forces of history and time... I doubt there is a better novelist than Swift for this kind of story
Scotland on Sunday
Like Ian McEwan's Saturday, or Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December, this novel draws on events from the news pages... But this emotionally complex novel is not mere reportage... It is Swift's most intimately revelatory novel yet... This is a profound and powerful portrait of a nation and a man in crisis that, for all its gentle intensity, also manages to be an unputdownable read.
The Sunday Express (UK)
Swift is as brilliant as ever on the potency of family myth... This novel is often astonishingly moving.
In Graham Swift's novel, Wish You Were Here, the Luxton family twice loses their dairy herds to mass slaughter in the wake of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and Foot and Mouth Disease
(FMD) outbreaks. Two very distinct and separate diseases, BSE and FMD, when they surface in agriculture, can be utterly devastating to farmers and national economies.
BSE is more commonly known as "Mad Cow Disease" and is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that attacks cows specifically. It causes the brain and spinal cord of affected animals to suffer a spongy deterioration, so called because of the formation of tiny sponge-like holes in the brain tissue. The United Kingdom has been most extremely impacted by BSE where it was first identified by a laboratory in November 1986.
Some scientists believe that, in rare instances, humans can develop a degenerative neurological disorder with similar symptoms to BSE, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), by eating food contaminated with brain, spinal cord or digestive tracts of infected cows. Although evidence suggests that, in very rare cases, BSE can cause vCJD in humans, vCJD is not related to BSE, and there is also considerable evidence that vCJD can develop for reasons unrelated to BSE - not least, a number of cases where life-long vegetarians have contracted and died of vCJD. For a time, scientists hypothesized that BSE might have been introduced to cattle by feeding them sheep parts infected with Scrapie (a fatal degenerative disease found in sheep and goats since the 18th century, which does not appear to be transmissible to humans), but, after much research, no link was found.
It appears that, in normal circumstances, BSE is a rare mutation in cattle that stays isolated because it cannot be spread by contact, as such it is possible that it may have been around for a long time before it was identified in 1986. The outbreak of BSE in the 1980s in the UK can be traced to the food the cattle were eating. Farmers in many parts of the developed world had taken to feeding their herds (which are naturally herbivores) the remains of slaughtered farm animals - including cattle, sheep and chickens. This mix is called "meat and bonemeal" (MBM) and was used as a protein supplement in the cattle's diet.
Once the source of the problem became known, the UK government banned feeding MBM to cattle in an effort to halt the spread (and other countries including the USA and Canada put in similar regulations). In addition, mass slaughters of potentially infected cattle were carried out by the order of the UK government. During the time of the infection, more than 180,000 cattle in the UK were believed to be infected and over 4.4 million animals were killed to prevent further spread of the disease.
North America did not see its first case of BSE until December of 1993, which appeared in Alberta, Canada. The first U.S. case was recorded in Texas in December of 2003, but it was later discovered to be a cow imported from Canada. In April 2012, a cow in California was found to be carrying the disease - the first case in the USA since 2006 - but it should be noted that only a tiny fraction of cows in the USA are tested and most cattle are slaughtered before the age when BSE could be identified - it is a slow developing disease that is usually not visible in cattle until the age of four to five years old - whereas most beef cattle are slaughtered by two years old.
Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) is also known as "Hoof and Mouth Disease." This disease is a viral infection that is sometimes fatal in livestock and affects cloven-hoofed animals: cattle, sheep, buffalo, bison, goats, pigs and deer. FMD spreads rapidly and has a very short incubation period - between 2 and 12 days. FMD causes very high fevers and blisters inside the mouth and on the feet. These blisters can rupture and cause lameness in affected animals.
Because of its quick spread, this disease is a serious threat to the farming industry. It is extremely rare for humans to contract this disease (the last confirmed case in the UK was in 1996) but it is very easy for humans to transport the disease from one herd to another via, for example, infected clothing. Great Britain saw a serious outbreak of FMD in the spring and summer of 2001. So widespread was this outbreak that the country's general and local elections were postponed for one month and all public rights of way across farmland were closed for considerably longer to minimize the chance of human traffic spreading the disease between herds. More than 2,000 confirmed cases were recorded and more than 700,000 cattle and sheep were killed to stop the further spread of FMD. When the crisis was deemed over, in October of 2001, the estimated costs of containment and losses to the agriculture industry were pegged at $16 million. The number of animals killed was highly criticized, as more than 80% of the killed livestock were free of FMD.