Wish You Were Here, by Graham Swift

Wish you were here

Graham Swift (Photo by Janus van der Eijnden, from http://fest.englishpen.org)
Graham Swift (Photo by Janus van der Eijnden)

Wish You Were Here, by Graham Swift

(Pantheon, Oct.2010)

In this novel Swift describes the same thing, over and over and over again, in the most painstaking detail. The same scene, the same moment, the same views, the same conversations, through only a handful of characters. Niall Williams also dissects family relationships and tragedies, but does not belabour them as Swift does in this instance. Willams has a light, subtle touch, Swift goes on for page after page, re-hashing the same idea, literally, while the reader initially aches for some movement in the plot, and eventually just skims over the repetitious parts.

Main character Jack Luxton receives news that his brother has been killed in Iraq, and goes to the airport to receive his casket and bury him – and that is the entire plot. In 353 pages, in which his emotions are cast and recast in different moulds and described from different angles, we find out a little about his childhood and marriage to Ellie, and the suicide of his father. We also find out what the title means – wish who were here, and why. The atmosphere is strained and bleak, with many scenes of people driving in bad weather, waiting around with a sense of dread and regret, and dealing with death and loneliness. The same phrases: “wish you were here” and “caravans” are repeated with a psychoanalyst’s attention to details and meaning of the context.

I read "Wish you were here" while on a ski trip to Revelstoke, B.C. I could email "wish you were here" to my family and friend, comforted by the knowledge that I need not  yearn for them - yet.
I read “Wish you were here” while on a ski trip to Revelstoke, B.C. I could email “wish you were here” to my family and friends, comforted by the knowledge that I need not yearn for them – yet.

The conclusion, when it eventually arrives, is all the more shattering for the extremely tedious build-up to it. A master like Swift could presumably have told his tale in half the number of pages, but in his hands, the wearying reiterations and second-by-second accounts give the reader a sense of how painful it is to really, really miss someone and to wish they were with you, especially when they have passed away.

And this is why he is a Booker Prize winner and why you should read it.