Friday, May 25, 2012

What We're Reading: Graham Swift

Wish You Were Here, by Graham Swift

Certainly Graham Swift must be included on a short list of the best English novelists of our generation. Most readers probably first became familiar with his work reading his novel Waterland, which was made into a major motion picture. A subsequent novel, Last Orders, won the prestigious Booker Prize. Swift here exhibits an exceptional command of his craft, displayed most notably in the nuanced development of this story and the novel’s masterful structure. This may be Swift’s best novel.

Swift tells a story that imagines the impact of several major events in recent English history on the life of Jack Luxton, a rural Devon dairy farmer, and his family. In the United States, we are familiar (from news stories) with the outbreak of Mad Cow disease and later Foot and Mouth disease in Great Britain, but perhaps have little understanding of what these catastrophes did to English farmers. Jack Luxton and his wife, who have grown up on adjoining farms, have an opportunity to make their escape from this hopeless enterprise. When their fathers die, they sell their farms and claim an unexpected inheritance on the Isle of Wight, a vacation caravan park that they manage successfully and that brings them a good living. But 10 years after their escape from life on their farms, tragic news from the British Army in Iraq opens old wounds between Jack and his wife and resurrects the deep and unresolved feelings of loss that were left in the wake of their desperate abandonment of the life they knew.

Swift writes about the tensions that lie beneath the surface in the lives of ordinary men and women. His characters are residents of rural villages and towns whose travail seems to so often go unnoticed. These ordinary people are taciturn and reticent, and their lives are dismissed as lacking drama, their stories of less interest and significance than those of the more modern and urban population. It is Swift’s extraordinary gift, as it was Thomas Hardy’s, to fully imagine these lives, and to tell us through the haltingly revealed tragedies of those lives a story that connects with our own deepest experiences and emotions.

The literary challenge here is how to tell a story that builds slowly and subconsciously to an overwhelming crisis of despair, and how to make such a subtle narrative move forward with the engagement of the reader. Swift accomplishes this in artful ways. We learn about his characters mostly from what he tells us about them, not through their own speech. The reader is put in the privileged position of knowing more about the unconscious life and motivations of the principal characters than they each know of themselves. Their inability to trace the source of their strong feelings, much less articulate them, is part of what makes their circumstances moving to us. The author also creates a sense of suspense by carefully placed hints and disclosures. He structures the novel in such a way that we always have a sense of being in the present as we are told about the past. The story opens on the obscure scene of its penultimate moment. Some crisis is in the offing. We are returned to that place occasionally in the text, and--finally--in the end. Between these recollections and returns to the present moment, we get various accounts of past events, sometimes containing within themselves recollections of yet further personal history. Each of these memories is recounted in a way that makes them seem immediate, but, more importantly, they ramify as they connect to other parts of the story.

Wish You Were Here is not just a story about a farmer leaving behind the family farm. This story connects with us because it is an allegory of the pervasive sense of displacement in modern life: the previous century of immigration, diasporas and ethnic relocations; the continued resettlement in western cultures from the countryside to cities; the alteration of natural and built environments; geographical relocations for jobs in the modern economy; and the change and loss of traditional jobs and ways of work. Wish You Were Here is about the places that are no longer here, the identities that are lost with the familiar landscapes we leave behind. It is concerned about how we mourn these losses and reconcile ourselves to them, and it is about the things we need to hold and carry when we leave these places behind.

1 comment:

Joel said...

I would not call Wish You Were Here his best novel, but I enjoyed it very much. My review is here, if you are interested.