by Graham Swift; Knopf, 2012; 319 pages; $25
Even the most insignificant actions inform our lives. It is that idea that Graham Swift continues to explore with the preciseness of observation Henry James perfected. In “Wish You Were Here,” Swift reflects recent British and world terrors through the seemingly insignificant actions of a seemingly insignificant man. The results are shattering.
The novel is set late in 2006. England has recently survived the terror of mad-cow disease. The world still flinches every time it remembers the terror that the attacks on the World Trade Center engendered. And Jack Luxton is still smarting from selling his family cattle farm at the insistence of his wife, Ellie.
The Luxtons now run a vacation caravan park known as The Lookout on the Isle of Wight. Jack and Ellie grew up together, bonded by an abundance of family tragedies. Jack’s mother died horribly; Ellie’s deserted the family for another man. Jack’s father, Michael, died violently; Ellie’s father soon followed.
Jack’s brother Tom, eight years Jack’s junior, always seemed the apple of his mother’s eye. Once she dies, Jack comes to think of himself as the buffer between Tom and their father. On his 18th birthday, Tom quietly leaves the farm, Jack listening from his own bed. Tom becomes a Special Forces sniper, only to die in a bomb attack during the Iraq War.
Tom’s death shakes Jack and Ellie’s marriage to its core. Both husband and wife learn that even their world is a precarious place, that anything that has happened — because of them and despite them — will have an impact on their lives. There exists what Swift terms, with his scrupulous irony, “a larger, unlocal malaise of insecurity.”
That “insecurity” eventually manifests itself as an indefinable terror. No manner of “looking out” or of “taking care” matters — not even the two trips Jack remembers from his youth, trips he tells himself he magnanimously took with his younger brother, caravan trips he remembers as “the best times of his life up to that time.”
Tom moves on; Jack remains on the farm. Jack “better not move on and see what else might be going, because he might end up having nothing … Jack was a sticker, a settler. He didn’t have the moving-on instinct, or he never really thought he could move on.” Yet Tom, “a mover-on and leaver-behind,” is to be buried as Jack has had to bury their parents, even had to bury Tom’s dog, Luke.
The real achievement of “Wish You Were Here” lies in Graham Swift’s restrained elegance of language as he examines the subtleties of human interaction with a terror that cannot be given a face. That quality is epitomized by a British Campaign Medal from World War I. It’s a Distinguished Conduct Medal given to one of a pair of Luxton twins, a medal that has had a bearing on the lives of all the Luxtons since then.
The irony is that Britain wasn’t really sure the medal had been issued to the correct twin, but no matter. That existential irony is at the heart of this consummately executed exploration of the caprices of a world that seems to have few answers for our questions, a world that seems terrified to provide satisfactory definitions for family and heroism and love and hope.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.