An ex-farmer whose brother has died fighting in Iraq is the man at the centre of Graham Swift’s new book, a state-of-the-nation novel on a small canvas.
An ex-farmer whose brother has died fighting in Iraq is the man at the centre of Graham Swift’s new book, a state-of-the-nation novel on a small canvas. Jack runs a caravan park on the Isle of Wight, having sold his centuries-old Devon farm to a banker in need of a bolt-hole. His parents are dead, and more than a decade has passed since he’s last been in touch with Tom, nine years his junior. Now Tom’s gone too, blown up by an IED, and Jack’s preparing to return to Devon for the funeral; it’s the first time he’ll have been back since selling up.
The novel slowly unravels the weft of Jack’s life as his mind roams over the past four decades. Topics aired include his pleasures and regrets during 12 years of marriage (post-coital cups of tea, childlessness), the death of the dog he had as a kid, and his lifelong ambivalence about Tom, who didn’t take leave from the army when their widowed dad died. As the sort of bungler who has trouble fitting a duvet cover, Jack always felt inferior to his brother, an all-rounder smart enough (or so it seemed) not to waste his life on a farm brought to its knees by foot-and-mouth and BSE.
Sometimes the third-person narration departs from Jack to enter someone else’s head, which tends to feel like a mistake. The power of the story depends on the pathos of Jack’s disquiet about matters such as whether or not Tom slept with his wife. It loses urgency when Swift shows this and other fears to be groundless simply by flitting to another perspective. A sequence written from Tom’s point of view seems unnecessary: the void he represents to Jack would be more vivid for being left alone.
The reason Swift doesn’t leave it alone, I reckon, is that he’s too keen to link agriculture and war. Basra ablaze puts Tom in mind of a cattle cull. Jack, on learning that he has died, thinks, ‘This is like the cow disease.’ These connections are vague but insistent. Jack sometimes feels ‘like a cow’; an army officer sees him as ‘hefty and — what was the word? — bovine’. It’s hard not to feel herded into taking the view that Tom being burned alive in his vehicle is somehow analogous to the MAFF-ordered incineration of livestock after foot-and-mouth in 2001.
Such queasy symmetry works to indict Whitehall as the root of Jack’s suffering, but Wish You Were Here seems more fatalistic than political: a howl, not an argument. That’s OK, because it is moving, engrossing, generally well put together, the stuff you want from a novel. A blurry chapter describing Tom’s repatriation ceremony is brilliantly done, as are passages about the death of his father, the violence of which remains obscure till late on. When the final pages seem set to slide into melodrama, with Tom popping up in Jack’s vision almost everywhere he looks, Swift steps back from the brink; and his prose has a pleasingly pedantic rhythm that stops things becoming too breakneck.