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.
This review was originally published in May 2012, and has been updated for the January 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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