Reflection can sometimes tell the whole story. In Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here, there are few characters, even less action, but plenty about how memory and evaluation of past choices occupy our present-day lives.
The story revolves around Jack, who came from a Devonshire farming family but was forced to abandon his family’s profession after fear of mad-cow disease forced them to put the herd down. As the story begins, the majority of the family members once close to Jack, those who helped define him, have passed. He is reliant solely on his wife Ellie, with whom he has co-owned a campground and vacation resort for several years. This has afforded them a more luxurious lifestyle than farming, but has set them adrift from the family and community connections of their childhood.
The real shift in the story comes when Jack belatedly learns of the death of his brother Tom, a soldier who has been killed in Iraq. Tom was already long estranged from the family, but going to retrieve his body and bring him home for burial proves a catalyst for Jack to reflect back on his life and choices. More overarching is the theme of the impact of war not just on his family but on the country of England as a whole, going back many generations.
Swift, who previously won the Booker Prize for Last Orders, spins a slow tale, bereft of suspense or much action. Yet the story he tells is beautiful and poignant. Readers will want to know how Jack reached his present state, and what the near future holds for him. Fans of The Shipping News or Olive Kitteridge will appreciate this understated tale about connections to home and family.