The bar is automatically high for anyone who’s won a Booker Prize, which Graham Swift did in 1996 for his novel Last Order. From the first pages of his latest work, Wish You Were Here, my opinion was mixed. It’s a serious novel filled with worthy themes: love, loss, grief, loyalty. Although Swift’s staccato sentences make for a writing style that is occasionally hard to read, they work to reflect the book’s sombre mood. It’s a story that folds in on itself like origami. While this establishes an intricate narrative, it is also airless and claustrophobic.
The novel revolves around Jack Luxton who, years earlier, sold the family farm in Devon in order to run a seaside caravan park with his wife Ellie. When he receives news that his soldier brother Tom has died in Iraq, Jack must travel away from this vacation life to arrange Tom’s funeral. He returns to Devon where his parents are buried and is haunted by events in the past that have been long left unresolved.
Jack is described as bovine and disconnected, a big slow creature who is easily led. Such an inarticulate hero would be a problem in the hands of a less skilled author, but Swift utilises Jack’s disconnection to purposeful effect. The crisis approaches and what happens next to Jack really matters.
Wish You Were Here is not a perfect novel, but there is something masterful and compelling about the way the mood lingers after the book is closed.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in July 2011.