Wish You Were Here
Graham Swift, 2012
On an autumn day in 2006, on the Isle of Wight, Jack Luxton—once a Devon 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.
For Jack and his wife, Ellie, this will have unexpected, far-reaching effects. For Jack in particular it means a crucial journey: to receive his brother’s remains and to confront his most secret, troubling memories.
A hauntingly intimate, deeply compassionate story about things that touch and test our human core, Wish You Were Here also looks, inevitably, to a wider, afflicted world. Moving toward a fiercely suspenseful climax, it brilliantly transforms the stuff of headlines into a heart-wrenching personal truth. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—May 4, 1949
• Where—London, England, UK
• Education—Dulwich College; Cambridge; University of York
• Awards—Booker Prize; James Tait Black Memorial Prize
• Currently—lives in London, England
Graham Colin Swift is a well-known British author and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (FRSL). He was born in London, England and educated at Dulwich College, London, Queens' College, Cambridge, and later the University of York. He was a friend of poet Ted Hughes.
Some of his works have been made into films, including Last Orders, which starred Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins and Waterland which starred Jeremy Irons.
Last Orders was a joint winner of the 1996 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and a mildly controversial winner of the Booker Prize in 1996, owing to the superficial similarities in plot to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
Waterland was set in The Fens; it is a novel of landscape, history and family, and is often cited as one of the outstanding post-war British novels and has been a set text on the English Literature syllabus in British schools.
1980 - The Sweet-Shop Owner
1982 - Shuttlecock (Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize)
1983 - Waterland
1988 - Out of This World
1992 - Ever After
1996 - Last Orders (Booker Prize)
2003 - The Light of Day
2007 - Tomorrow
2009 - Making an Elephant: Writing from Within
2012 - Wish you Were Here
2016 - Mothering Sunday
(Author bio from Wikipedia.)
Causality, in Swift's hands, is buried, unpredictable; it runs through people and events in the odd way a water leak can move through a house, running down walls seemingly far removed from the source. Guns go off in the novel; there are weddings; there are funerals; there are inquests and revelations; hearts break; smoke rises from pyres. But none of these events happen in quite the order, or for the reasons, you would expect. Moving gracefully and without fanfare among multiple points of view, the novel might be said to evoke a collective psychic wound that is expressed variously in various characters, simultaneously drawing people together and driving them irretrievably apart, destroying some lives and saving others according to its own unknowable agency.
Stacey D'Erasmo - New York Times Book Review
Wish You Were Here is an extraordinary novel, the work of an artist with profound insight into human nature and the mature talent to deliver it just the way he wants. The 62-year-old British author has set this unhurried exploration of grief and longing in the English countryside, but it's infected with the violent terrors of contemporary life. As he did with Waterland (1983)—as every truly great novelist does—in this new book, he demonstrates that perfect coordination between style and story. You could no more separate this plot from the way Swift constructs it than you could detach the melody from a symphony.
Ron Charles - Washington Post
Vivid, emotionally raw.... 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.... Thoughtful and sensitive.
Michael Patrick Brady - Boston Globe
Swift's stunning new novel (after Light of Day) begins with deceptive slowness, detailing the lives of Jack and Ellie, the English husband-and-wife proprietors of a trailer park on the Isle of Wight. Jack and his brother Tom grew up on a dairy farm, but...Jack learns that the burden of repatriating his brother's remains has fallen on his shoulders.... Swift (Last Orders) creates an elegant rawness with language that carries the reader through several layers of Jack's consciousness at once—his lonely past, his uncertain future, and the ways in which his father and his brother both refuse to leave him alone, despite how long they've been gone.
This perfectly titled novel is about longing for the people in our lives who have died. Taking place over just a few days, it focuses on Jack Luxton's journey to retrieve the remains of his brother Tom, a soldier who died in Iraq.... [L]like his Booker Prize-winning Last Orders, it uses a death as a provocation for the examination of self and country. Verdict: 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. Recommended for fans of Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, and Kazuo Ishiguro, authors with a similar method of slowly developing an intense interior narrative. —Evelyn Beck, Piedmont Technical Coll., Greenwood, SC
A subtly powerful novel.... Brilliantly illuminating the wounded psyches of his characters, circling back to corral the secrets of the past while finding the timeless core within present conflicts, and consummately infusing this gorgeously empathic tale with breath-holding suspense, Swift tests ancient convictions about birthright, nature, love, heroism, war, death, and the covenant of grief. Readers enthralled by Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan will queue up for Swift’s virtuoso novel. —Donna Seamen
A novel as contemporary as international terrorism and the war in Iraq and as timeless as mortality, from one of Britain’s literary masters. "The past is past, and the dead are the dead," was the belief of the strong-willed Ellie, whose husband, Jack, a stolid former farmer, is the protagonist of Swift’s ninth and most powerful novel. As anyone will recognize who is familiar with his prize-winning masterworks, such a perspective on the past is in serious need of correction, which this novel provides in a subtly virtuosic and surprisingly suspenseful manner. It’s a sign of Swift’s literary alchemy that he gleans so much emotional and thematic richness from such deceptively common stock.... 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.
1. “Wish you were here” is a powerful phrase in the novel. Why is it so significant?
2. Jack says, “…cattle aren’t people, that’s a fact” (p. 4). But in what ways in the novel are cattle like people, or vice versa?
3. What parallels can you draw between Jack and Tom and the earlier pair of Luxton brothers?
4. “To become the proprietor of the very opposite thing to that deep-rooted farmhouse. Holiday homes, on wheels.” (p. 29) What is Swift telling us through Jack’s observation?
5. What does their Caribbean holiday symbolize to Ellie? To Jack?
6. Did Jack really want to leave Devon, ten years earlier? If Ellie hadn’t suggested the Isle of Wight, what do you think might have happened?
7. Before they move, Jack sells the ancestral Luxton cradle, but keeps the shotgun and the medal. Why?
8. Madness comes up again and again—mad-cow disease, the madness of war, the possibility that Jack has gone mad. What point is Swift making?
9. Time shifts frequently over the course of the novel, hopscotching across decades. How does Swift use these shifts to expand and deepen the story?
10. Why does Ellie refuse to accompany Jack back to Devon?
11. Why is putting down Luke such a pivotal act for Tom and Jack?
12. What do we learn when Swift shifts from Jack’s point of view to others’—Major Richards’s, the hearse driver’s, Bob Ireton’s? What do we learn from the brief section told from Tom’s perspective?
13. At several points, Swift writes extended hypothetical passages—what 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?
14. How does the Robinsons’ transformation of Jebb Farm work as a metaphor for twenty-first-century life?
15. “...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.” (p. 267) What do Jack’s hand-prints symbolize?
16. “Security” means different things to the Luxtons and the Robinsons. Which definition do you think Swift endorses?
17. What does the medal represent? What does it mean when Jack tosses it into the sea?
18. Does Tom really believe Ellie had a hand in Jimmy’s death? Why does he say it?
19. Tom’s ghost plays a major role in the novel’s final scene. What does he represent?
(Questions isssued by publisher.)
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