‘When you shine a torch at night,” writes British novelist Graham Swift, “it lights your way, but makes the surrounding darkness several times darker.” In his latest book, “Wish You Were Here,” the Booker Prize-winning author illuminates the life of a sullen, Devonshire farm boy struggling to endure stark, personal tragedies amid the encroaching pall of family history, rural decay, and the global war on terrorism.
Living in what feels like exile on the Isle of Wight, Jack Luxton learns of his brother Tom’s death in Iraq, which precipitates an emotional row with his wife, Ellie. He contemplates the magnitude of his loss — the hollowing out of his family, his heritage, and himself. Forebodingly, he places a shotgun on the bed next to him, and awaits his wife’s return.
Death and madness pervade. Mad cow disease scuttled the family farm in Devon, with the livestock condemned to burning pyres and incinerators. “Thousands of stacked-up cattle,” Jack recalls, “thousands more lying rotting in the fields.” The smoke hangs heavy in his mind, and he wonders whether the microscopic prions responsible for the crisis were spread through the air, whether the madness has contaminated a world now riven by fear and consumed by senseless war. He wonders whether his own sanity has been compromised.
In a fractured, disorienting rush of memories, Swift reveals the regrets and misfortunes that have driven Jack to the brink. A series of intertwined vignettes recount the miserable end of Jack’s father, Michael, and the loss of the family land; Tom’s departure to the army and the awkward formality of his official “repatriation” as a casualty of war; and his relationship with the headstrong, determined Ellie, whose desperation to escape the bleakness of farm life led the couple to sell their birthright and take charge of an island caravan park. Jack appears as a passive observer in his own story, watching those around him attempt to bend their fates while he acquiesces to expectation and obligation.
The most moving moments of “Wish You Were Here” center on Jebb Farm. Swift’s depiction of the slow, inevitable decline of the centuries-old homestead is touching, chronicling the disappearance of a quiet, pastoral way of life that seems anachronistic. It’s a life bound by the fences that hem in the farm, beyond which lies a world utterly alien to Jack. He returns there after burying his brother and finds it transformed into a quaint vacation home by a wealthy London banker. The rough wooden fences that cradled him for so many years have been replaced by sleek, steel gates meant to keep him out. Without a connection to his past, Jack can envision no future. “[I]f he was going to be the last Luxton ever to farm there,” he tells Ellie, “then there shouldn’t be any more Luxtons at all.”
These vivid, emotionally raw segments overshadow the limp framing story of Jack and Ellie’s fight. Swift is a writer who clearly revels in dialogue and nuance, and in Jack he has crafted a marvelously rich character whose quiet, outwardly closed-off nature belies profound internal turmoil. The shotgun and the threat of violence are never anything more than a pretense to explore Jack’s troubled mind, and this pseudo-plot’s resolution is too pat to match the impact of the rest of the story.
“Wish You Were Here” is relentlessly grim, but Swift’s thoughtful and sensitive treatment of Jack’s deep despair help prevent the darkness from swallowing this story whole.Michael Patrick Brady is a writer living in South Boston. He can be reached at mike@