“A good novel,” Graham Swift wrote in a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review, “is like a welcome pause in the flow of our existence; a great novel is forever revisitable. Novels can linger with us long after we’ve read them — even, and perhaps particularly, novels that compel us to read them, all other concerns forgotten, in a single intense sitting.”
Swift has it right, and has given us another great novel in “Wish You Were Here.” Like his Booker Prize-winning “Last Orders,” his newest novel is an intimate portrait of relationships — family and romantic, complicated and happy and fraught. Triggered by one event — in both books, a death — the story unfolds out over the course of years, a little here, a little there, and soon it feels as if the characters are a part of your life.
Set in England in the recent past, “Wish You Were Here” opens with Jack Luxton, a former farmer nearing middle age, in his bedroom with a shotgun, obviously in a moment of extreme personal distress. What has precipitated his crisis, we don’t yet know.
We learn, though, that Jack and his younger brother, Tom, lost their mother at an early age; that their father was not a warm or loving presence in their lives; that their family dairy farm was devastated first by mad-cow disease and then by hoof-and-mouth. We learn about Jack’s secret-at-first romance with the girl next door, Ellie, who later became his wife. We learn about the two Luxton ancestors who died in the first World War and the medal that one of them won; we learn that early on the morning of his 18th birthday, Tom fled the farm and joined the army, leaving Jack, “the big, obedient brother” behind to explain — or not — to their father. We learn that after Jack’s father died and Ellie’s father died, they gave up their adjacent farms and moved to the Isle of Wight to run a vacation campground Ellie inherited.
And we learn that Tom has been killed in Iraq, leaving Jack the last of the Luxtons.
Tom’s death is the catalyst, setting the story in motion. Jack must go claim his body at a military base, return it to their hometown, and arrange the funeral. Usually a go-along-to-get-along kind of person not given to waxing philosophic, Jack becomes pensive and reflective: “Death, Jack thought … was in many ways a great place of shelter. It was life and all its knowledge that was insupportable.”
The story hops around between time periods and shifts focus among the characters — Jack is the center but others have their stories as well, including the people who bought the Luxtons’ farm — but is never hard to follow. Swift doles out pieces and gradually the whole puzzle takes shape. His writing has a quiet beauty to it, never showy but harnessing the power of the well-chosen word: a sickroom is like “some compartment of disaster”; Jack and Ellie have to decide whether to sell up or be “the proud and penniless owners of massive liabilities.”
I didn’t read “Wish You Were Here” in a “single, intense sitting” — it’s a book to be savored, mulled over, reflected on, not plowed through. Perhaps the best testament to how strongly entwined with the book I felt was that I put off reading the last 50 pages or so for two whole days because I was so afraid of what might happen to Jack — if I didn’t look, he necessarily stayed all right. To have a reader so vested in a character: I can’t think of a much higher compliment to an author’s skills than that.