Wish You Were Here, by Graham Swift (Picador)

“Are these things done on Albion’s shore?”

Graham Swift’s new novel has this line from William Blake’s “Little Boy Lost” as its epigraph, and Blake’s sense of horrified wonder pervades this book. The War On Terror is being waged in far away Iraq – far away, that is, from the caravan holiday park on the Isle of Wight owned by retired dairy farmer Jack Luxton and his wife Ellie. A consequence of that war – the death of Jack’s brother Tom, a soldier – is a catalyst (and, it must be said, a narrative device) for an imaginative journeying back in time. We see the two boys growing up on their family dairy farm in Devon and through the Mad Cow crisis in the ’nineties, Jack’s long courtship of Ellie, Tom’s absconding on his eighteenth birthday to join the army, and the deaths of parents.

Swift is no Hardy or Lawrence, and the atmosphere of farming life is sketchily conveyed. He is most perceptive about undercurrents of feeling, motive, what is not said but intuited between people – this is a novel of the inner life, and precious little happens. The book begins with Jack Luxton sitting in his bedroom, a loaded shotgun beside him, waiting for his wife to arrive home. How has he come to this? The novel tells us, and tells us, but almost to the end Jack’s still sitting on that bed, and although the narrative builds to a kind of climax, it would do so more suspensefully if only he would move his arse.

The whole story, apart from its final pages, is told in retrospect: Jack and Tom and their taciturn father on the farm; Jack and Ellie making a go of their caravan park, and enjoying middle-class prosperity (holidays in St Lucia); the ‘repatriation’ of Tom’s body from Iraq. Connections are made between the mountains of smoking cow carcasses during the height of the Mad Cow panic and the corpses of soldiers coming home – an allusion, perhaps, to Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”).

Swift has researched the repatriation process, and the effects on those involved, from military brass to undertakers to mourning families, and in a sense this novel does what novels do best – it explores a universal through its impact on individual lives. Tom’s death brings old resentments between Jack and his wife to the surface, and the title’s emphasis on absence rather than presence, desire rather than fulfilment, signals a Blakean elegy for an England that is increasingly bewildered, out of its depth, bereft of a moral compass.

Dominion

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Tim Tweets