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The book of the dead

Tom was dead, to begin with.

And so was Michael, and Vera, and Luke. Luke most particularly, since it was perhaps his death that precipitated it all.

And as we begin, it looks very likely that before too long Jack will be dead. Or Ellie. Or both of them. Because on a storm-wracked November day, Jack is sitting in their bedroom on the Isle of Wight with a shotgun lying beside him; and Ellie is in their car in a nearby lay-by wondering whether she should return home.

So begins Graham Swift’s new novel, Wish You Were Here. It is, clearly, a novel about death. But that is what Swift does best. Think of Out of this World and Ever After, The Light of Day and especially Last Orders, every one of them a book in which very ordinary people confront themselves and discover themselves through death. In contrast, Swift’s last novel, Tomorrow, was about life, and was one of the weakest he has produced.

Swift’s novels are focussed. Last Orders, Tomorrow and now Wish You Were Here, are all played out within the compass of a day, or even less. In a sense, Tomorrow and Wish You Were Here are mirrors of each other. In the first, a woman lies awake through a long night, conscious that in the morning she must tell her children an uncomfortable truth about their birth. In the latter, a man sits up through one short day contemplating the deaths that have brought him to this point, and an ending that maybe needs to come. Maybe Swift is simply better at endings than beginnings.

I first fell in love with Graham Swift’s work when I read Waterland, a stunning tour de force. Since then, I have read everything he has written. For a while, admittedly, this felt as if it was more out of duty than enjoyment, and I had nearly come to the point of giving up when I read Last Orders, which deservedly won the Booker Prize. His next novel, The Light of Day, was, I felt, even better. Then came Tomorrow, a real disappointment, and a so-so collection of essays, Making an Elephant. But now Wish You Were Here is Swift back at his very best once more, or so I believe, though the reviews have been mixed to say the least.

Jack Luxon, a name that is perhaps meant to call to mind ‘lummox’ since that is what the slow and ponderous Jack so often seems to be, is the eldest son of Michael and Vera. Jebb Farm, in Cornwall, has been in the family for hundreds of years and has imposed a lifestyle as slow and ponderous as the menfolk of the family. With Vera’s death it became an all-male household, a place of grim silences, rare humour and isolation. The first thing we ever learn about Michael is that he never put his arm around his two sons, Jack and his younger brother Tom. Jack’s only escape from this intensely circumscribed existence comes once a week when he slips across to a neighbour’s farm and engages in what he fondly believes is illicit sex with Ellie, though in all probability this liaison has been tacitly approved and facilitated by Michael and by Ellie’s father as a way of keeping the two of them on their respective farms. Tom, who seems to be the one who holds the family together after Vera’s death, has no such outlet.

Then comes BSE, and a grim existence becomes even grimmer. At some point, Tom’s old dog, Luke, becomes sick. Michael loads the old dog into their battered old truck, takes his shotgun and, at the last minute, invites Tom to go with him. He takes the dog to a nearby field dominated by an ancient oak, and, as Tom relates the story, first offers the shotgun to Tom. Though Tom is the best shot in the family, he cannot do this. Michael then swiftly dispatches the dog, and says he hopes someone would have the courtesy to do the same to him when the time came.

This sours Tom’s relationship with his family. He bides his time, and on the morning of his 18th birthday he sneaks away in the early hours, and goes to enlist in the army. Exactly one year later, Michael creeps out of the house at the same ungodly hour. Disturbed by something, though he could never say what, Jack notices that Michael had Luke’s old dog blanket spread upon his bed. Jack follows Michael down to the field with the oak, where he discovers that Michael has put the barrel of the shotgun into his mouth and blown his brains out.

In a sense, this is a release for Jack, though he never quite sees it like this. Ellie, whose own father has just died, now takes charge of things. This is a novel in which the women, Vera and Ellie, are the active, imaginative and unsentimental characters. The men follow sullenly in their wake. Ellie persuades Jack that they should sell the two farms (Jebb Farm is bought as a holiday home by a rich but dysfunctional London family) and move to a caravan park on the Isle of Wight that she has inherited from the mother who deserted her when she was a child. The park is a success, they can afford annual winter holidays in the Caribbean, but emotionally Jack has never left the farm in Cornwall. Television film of the smoke rising from cremated cows during the foot and mouth epidemic of early 2001 affects him far more than the smoke rising from the twin towers a few months later.

For ten years, there is no word of or from Tom. Then Jack receives official notification that Tom has been killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. This is when the quiet life that Jack has manufactured for himself by refusing to think about things, by refusing to remember, starts to unravel. With Ellie refusing to accompany him (for her, Tom was a ghostly presence in their marriage from which she is glad to be liberated), Jack drives to the Oxfordshire airbase when Tom’s body is repatriated, then goes on to the family plot in Cornwall for the funeral, then returns home and, after Ellie storms out following a row, he gets out the old shotgun and settles down in their bedroom to await her return. And this is where the novel begins.

I have to say so much about the plot because it is so intricate, everything is tied to something else, you cannot pick out one thread and say that is what the novel is about, because that one thread is knotted inextricably to a dozen others. In that sense, it is perhaps the densest and most complex novel Swift has written, Waterland not excepted; in other senses it is the simplest and most straightforward. And because death is so central to everything that affects the central characters: the death of cattle in the BSE and foot and mouth outbreaks, the death of his mother, his dog, his father, his brother, it is hardly surprising that this is also a ghost story. The ghosts of memory are there throughout the book; one of those interwoven threads is about the recognition of things you cannot ignore but have tried to forget. And the ghost of Tom appears to Jack at several points in the story. This is, of course, a metaphorical appearance that reflects Jack’s psychological state; except that the ghost materially affects the outcome of the novel.

And the book is beautifully written. I have seen criticism of the writing because Swift uses words that Jack probably wouldn’t even have known. I think this is misguided. Jack is our main viewpoint character, but he is never the narrator; there is always the novelist telling us what he sees and thinks and feels. But the writing nevertheless lets us into the workings of Jack’s mind in an extraordinary way.

Swift is not a flashy writer, not someone who works on the level of word choice. But then, his characters are almost always unflashy people whose word choice would be similarly limited. Nor does he write at the level of the sentence. You don’t sit back from any one single sentence and go ‘wow’, you don’t rush to quote his brilliant phrase making. No, he writes on the level of the paragraph. What you find throughout the novel are paragraphs composed of fairly straightforward declarative sentences, terms and ideas are often repeated or rephrased or turned around. But the structure of the paragraphs reflects the workings of Jack’s mind. The thought embedded within the paragraph is not rehashed and worked over until you have found the perfect expression of that thought. Rather, the thought is imperfectly expressed, turned around, tried in another way, worried away at, until the thought is not expressed but exhausted. It is slow and ponderous, like Jack is, but at the end of the day you feel that you are looking at the world the way he sees it. It is a wonderful example of using the structure of the writing at the service of character creation.

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