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Wish You Were Here

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A Washington Post Notable Work of Fiction

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 ...

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Overview

A Washington Post Notable Work of Fiction

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“An extraordinary novel, the work of an artist with profound insight into human nature and the mature talent to deliver it.” —The Washington Post

“Exquisite. . . . Beautifully made…[an] abundance of subtlety, tenderness and fluid prose.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Vivid, emotionally raw . . . Swift is a writer who clearly revels in dialogue and nuance. . . . Thoughtful and sensitive.” —The Boston Globe
 
“Mr. Swift's writing is as strong as ever, recalling the descriptive beauty of his highly acclaimed Waterland and Booker Award-winning Last Orders.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“As every truly great novelist does, in this new book, [Swift] demonstrates that perfect coordination between style and story. . . . [A] honed and driven story. Honestly, I can’t remember when I cared so passionately about how a novel might end.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post
 
“Jamesian in sensibility and to some degree in style, [Swift] finds tragedy in the most ordinary conversation. . . . . You forget how piercing this sort of thing can be until you see Swift doing it so well, and with such patience. The depth of field in a Swift novel, thematically and emotionally, is vast. At his best, he suggests that looking intently at the smallest, most mundane thing can yield a glimpse into the meaning of life.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“A rich, stereoscopic portrait of the book’s hero, Jack Luxton. . . . Swift knows that in reality we occupy a wealth of experiences, past and present, mundane and memorable. His strength in this fine novel is showing how all those experiences inescapably collide within us. As he puts it, "the place known as 'away from it all' simply doesn't exist." —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
 
“Heart-wrenching and gripping, Swift’s novel takes one man’s grief and uses it as a prism for the suffering of an entire nation.” —Mail on Sunday
 
“Part ghost story, part whodunit, part tour d’horizon of a nation that seems to have lost faith in tradition and history, it is also a deeply human tale about a man driven to the edge. Praise be for a serious novel that dares to look current affairs in the face.” —The Times (London)
 “One of Swift’s most accomplished works yet. . . . A writerly novel that pushes us deep into the writer’s craft. . . . That Swift should be considered among the ranks of the literary greats is surely no longer in doubt.” —Culture Mob

“Magnificent . . . This is a substantial work, but not a sentence too long . . . Unafraid of emotion, though without a moment of sentimentality, Swift brilliantly conveys the confusion of a man and wife trapped by their unspoken fears.” —Sunday Herald (Scotland)
 
“With unmistakable echoes of Thomas Hardy and E.M. Forster. . . . He exercises a compelling mastery of tone and trajectory. . . . Emotionally gripping.” —The Times Literary Supplement

Stacey D'Erasmo
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.
—The New York Times Book Review
Ron Charles
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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
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 after mad cow disease decimates the livestock, their father commits suicide and the brothers grow apart—Tom enlists and goes off to fight in Iraq, while Jack and Ellie built a happy, if quiet, existence. But when a letter from the Ministry of Defence arrives—addressed to the old farm and rerouted "by someone with a long memory" to the Isle of Wight—Jack learns that the burden of repatriating his brother's remains has fallen on his shoulders, a responsibility that will cause Jack to confront the complexities of "life and all its knowledge," and the sheltering peace of death. 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. (Apr.)
Library Journal
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. The brothers grew up on a farm in the British countryside, and hovering over the story is the specter of mad cow disease on one end and terror (both political and personal) on the other. Madness and terror certainly infect Jack, who has suffered the loss of nearly everyone he loves. The question that propels the action is whether he will ultimately destroy himself as well. Like Swift's Waterland, this book explores the ways the past haunts us, and, 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. [See Prepub Alert, 9/30/11.]—Evelyn Beck, Piedmont Technical Coll., Greenwood, SC
Kirkus Reviews
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 (Last Orders, 1996, etc.), 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. Jack and Ellie have grown up together in the British farm country, and their marriage is practically inevitable once both are on their own. Jack's mother died when he was a boy; Ellie's left home for another man. Jack's brother, Tom, eight years younger but in many ways more worldly and self-assertive, forsakes the farm life to join the army as soon as he can. The fathers of Jack and Ellie both die; Tom remains out of contact for more than a decade. At Ellie's insistence, they sell their property in order to run a seaside vacation park she has inherited. Every winter the childless couple takes a Caribbean vacation. When Tom dies in Iraq, Jack must deal with the arrangements. He cancels the annual vacation and his marriage all but unravels. The minister who had handled the funeral of Jack's father and now his brother knows that the eulogy needs to be "as little and simple as possible…as simple as possible being really the essence of the thing." Swift somehow cuts to the essence of both a family's legacy and the modern malaise through the reticent Jack, who comes to terms with the realization that "all the things that had once been dead and buried had come back again."

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307744395
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/22/2013
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 812,594
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Graham Swift lives in London and is the author of eight previous novels: The Sweet-Shop Owner; Shuttlecock, which received the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize; Waterland, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won The Guardian Fiction Award, the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and the Italian Premio Grinzane Cavour; Out of This World; Ever After, which won the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger; Last Orders, which was awarded the Booker Prize; The Light of Day; and, most recently, Tomorrow. He is also the author of Learning to Swim, a collection of short stories, and Making an Elephant, a non-fiction book. His work has been translated into more than thirty languages.

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Read an Excerpt

1

There is no end to madness, Jack thinks, once it takes hold. Hadn’t those experts said it could take years before it flared up in human beings? So, it had flared up now in him and Ellie.

Sixty-­five head of healthy-­seeming cattle that finally succumbed to the rushed-­through culling order, leaving a silence and emptiness as hollow as the morning Mum died, and the small angry wisp of a thought floating in it: Well, they’d better be right, those experts, it had better damn well flare up some day or this will have been a whole load of grief for nothing.

So then.

Healthy cattle. Sound of limb and udder and hoof—­and mind. “Not one of them mad as far as I ever saw,” Dad had said, as if it was the start of one of his rare jokes and his face would crack into a smile to prove it. But his face had looked like simply cracking anyway and staying cracked, and the words he might have said, by way of a punchline, never left his lips, though Jack thinks now that he heard them. Or it was his own silent joke to himself. Or it’s the joke he’s only arrived at now: “We must be the mad ones.”

And if ever there was a time when Jack’s dad might have put his two arms round his two sons, that was it. His arms were certainly long enough, even for his sons’ big shoulders—­both brothers out of the same large Luxton mould, though with all of eight years between them. Tom would have been fifteen then, but growing fast. And Jack, though it was a fact he sometimes wished to hide, even to reverse, already had a clear inch over his father.

The three of them had stood there, like the only life left, in the yard at Jebb Farm.

But Michael Luxton hadn’t put his arms round his two sons. He’d done what he’d begun to do, occasionally, only after his wife’s death. He’d looked hard at his feet, at the ground he was standing on, and spat.

And Jack, who long ago took his last look at that yard, looks now from an upstairs window at a grey sea, at a sky full of wind-­driven rain, but sees for a moment only smoke and fire.

Sixty-­five head of cattle. Or, to reckon it another way (and never mind the promised compensation): ruin. Ruin, at some point in the not-­so-­distant future, the ruin that had been creeping up on them anyway since Vera Luxton had died.

Cattle going mad all over England. Or being shoved by the hundred into incinerators for the fear and the risk of it. Who would have imagined it? Who would have dreamed it? But cattle aren’t people, that’s a fact. And when trouble comes your way, at least you might think, though it’s small comfort and precious little help: Well, we’ve had our turn now, our share.

But years later, right here in this seaside cottage, Jack had switched on the TV and said, “Ellie, come and look at this. Come and look, quick.” It was the big pyre at Roak Moor, back in Devon. Thousands of stacked-­up cattle, thousands more lying rotting in fields. The thing was burning day and night. The smoke would surely have been visible, over the far hills, from Jebb. Not to mention the smell being carried on the wind. And someone on the TV—­another of those experts—­was saying that burning these cattle might still release into the air significant amounts of the undetected agent of BSE. Though it was ten years on, and this time the burnings were for foot-­and-­mouth. Which people weren’t known to get. Yet.

“Well, Jack,” Ellie had said, stroking the back of his neck, “did we make a good move? Or did we make a good move?”

But he’d needed to resist the strange, opposite feeling: that he should have been there, back at Jebb, in the thick of it; it was his proper place.

BSE, then foot-­and-­mouth. What would have been the odds? Those TV pictures had looked like scenes from hell. Flames leaping up into the night. Even so, cattle aren’t people. Just a few months later Jack had turned on the telly once again and called to Ellie to come and look, as people must have been calling out, all over the world, to whoever was in the next room, “Drop what you’re doing and come and look at this.”

More smoke. Not over familiar, remembered hills, and even on the far side of the world. Though Jack’s first thought—­or perhaps his second—­had been the somehow entirely necessary and appropriate one: Well, we should be all right here. Here at the bottom of the Isle of Wight. And while the TV had seemed to struggle with its own confusion and repeated again and again, as if they might not be true, the same astonishing sequences, he’d stepped outside to look down at the site, as if half expecting everything to have vanished.

Thirty-­two white units. All still there. And among them, on the grass, a few idle and perhaps still-­ignorant human sprinkles. But inside each caravan was a television, and some of them must be switched on. The word must be spreading. In the Ship, in the Sands Cafe, it must be spreading. It was early September—­late season—­but the middle of a beautiful, clear, Indian-­summer day, the sea a smooth, smiling blue. Until now at least, they would all have been congratulating themselves on having picked a perfect week.

He’d felt a surge of helpless responsibility, of protectiveness. He was in charge. What should he do—­go down and calm them? In case they were panicking. Tell them it was all right? Tell them it was all right just to carry on their holidays, that was what they’d come for and had paid for and they shouldn’t let this spoil things, they should carry on enjoying themselves.

But his next thought—­though perhaps it had really been his first and he’d pushed it aside, and it was less a thought maybe than a cold, clammy premonition—­was: what might this mean for Tom?

He looks now at that same view from the bedroom window of Lookout Cottage, though the weather’s neither sunny nor calm. Clouds are charging over Holn Head. A November gale is careering up the Channel. The sea, white flecks in its greyness, seems to be travelling in a body from right to left, west to east, as if some retreat is going on. Rain stings the glass in front of him.

Ellie has been gone for over an hour—­this weather yet to unleash itself when she left. She could be sitting out the storm somewhere, pulled up in the wind-­rocked Cherokee. Reconsidering her options, perhaps. Or she could have done already exactly what she said she’d do, and be returning, having to take it slowly, headlights on in the blinding rain. Or returning—­who knows?—­behind a police car, with not just its headlights on, but its blue light flashing.

Reconsidering her options? But she made the move and said the words. The situation is plain to him now, and despite the blurring wind and rain, Jack’s mind is really quite clear. She had her own set of keys, of course. All she had to do was grab her handbag and walk out the door, but she might have remembered another set of keys that Jack certainly hasn’t forgotten. Has it occurred to her, even now? Ellie who was usually the one who thought things through, and him the slowcoach.

“Ellie,” Jack thinks. “My Ellie.”

He’s already taken the shotgun from the cabinet downstairs—­the keys are in the lock—­and brought it up here. It’s lying, loaded, on the bed behind him, on the white duvet. For good measure he has a box of twenty-­five cartridges (some already in his pocket), in case of police cars, in case of mishaps. It’s the first time, Jack thinks, that he’s ever put a gun on a bed, let alone theirs, and that, by itself, has to mean something. As he peers through the window he can feel the weight of the gun behind him, making a dent in the duvet as if it might be some small, sleeping body.

Well, one way or another, they’d never gone down the road of children. There isn’t, now, that complication. He’s definitely the last of the Luxtons. There’s only one final complication—­it involves Ellie—­and he’s thought that through too, seriously and carefully.

Which is why he’s up here, at this rain-­lashed window, from where he has the best view of the narrow, twisting road, Beacon Hill, which has no other purpose these days than to lead to this cottage. So he’ll be alerted. So he’ll be able to see, just a little sooner than from downstairs, the dark-­blue roof, above the high bank, then the nose of the Cherokee as it takes the first, tight, ascending bend, past the old chapel. The Cherokee that’s done so much hard journeying in these last three days.

The road below him, running with water, seems to slither.

Of course, she might not return at all. Another option, and one she might be seriously contemplating. Though where the hell else does she have to go to?

It’s all gone mad, Jack thinks, but part of him has never felt saner. Rain blurs the window, but he looks through it at the rows of buffeted caravans in the middle distance to the right, beyond the spur of land that slopes down beneath him to the low mass of the Head. All empty now, of course, for the winter.

“Well, at least this has happened in the off season.”

Ellie’s words, and just for a shameful instant it had been his own secret flicker of a thought as well.

He looks at the caravans and even now feels their tug, like the tug of the wind on their own thin, juddering frames. Thirty-­two trembling units. To the left, the locked site office, the laundrette, the empty shop—­grille down, window boarded. The gated entrance-­way off the Sands End road, the sign above it swinging.

Even now, especially now, he feels the tug. The Lookout Caravan Park, named after this cottage (or two knocked into one), in turn named after its former use. He feels, himself now, like some desperate coastguard. Ellie had said they should change the name from the Sands. He’d said they should keep it, for the good will and the continuity. And so they had, for a year. But Ellie was all for them making their own mark and wiping out what was past. There must be no end of caravan sites called the Sands, she’d said, but the Lookout would stand out.

It could work two ways, he’d said, “Lookout”—­attempting another of those solemn-­faced jokes of the kind his father once made.

Ellie had shrugged. So, didn’t he like the name of the cottage? It wasn’t the name they’d given it, after all. Lookout Cottage (usually known as just “The Lookout”). They could always change the name of the cottage. Ellie was all for change. She was his wife now. She’d laughed—­she’d changed her name to Luxton.

But they hadn’t. Perhaps they should have done. And before the new season began, for the sake of uniformity but also novelty, and because Ellie thought it sounded better than the Sands, the site had become, on the letterhead and the brochure and on the sign over the gate, as well as in plain fact, the Lookout Park.

And it was lookout time now all right.

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Reading Group Guide

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?

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 18, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I must admit I struggled with this book. Though I consider Graha

    I must admit I struggled with this book. Though I consider Graham Swift to be one of the finest writers to emerge in the last 30 years this book took an effort to complete. Though the writer maintains his fluid and intimate prose style he fills the book with constant asides and observations that leads the reader on a serpentine route to the moment he captures so well and completely. Like Vermeer Swift can capture a seemingly mundane moment and turn it into and existential exercise with much wider and deeper tones than the reader expects but his constant use of commas and dose make the reading somewhat of a chore. The story of a man burying his war hero brother as his marriage faces begins to collapse is an epic concept with current relevance but I would admire this book more if the hand of the editor had been mmore heavily felt. I gave it 3 stars because the quality of the writing is evident and it is a the journey is compelling and nuanced but I don't believe that history will remember this book as one of Swifts best and it will remain more a book of excellent craft more than a book of that readers connect with.

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    Posted August 12, 2014

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