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Review: Graham Swift Maps Difficult Territory in 'Wish You Were Here'

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There are a handful of writers who might lay claim to being the greatest living British novelist. Ian McEwan and Martin Amis would undoubtedly head the list, and there are strong cases to be made for the inclusion of Ali Smith and Will Self among the younger set. One thing’s for certain, however – no list would be complete without Graham Swift.

If Swift has avoided the notoriety of Amis and Self, it’s only because his focus is squarely on the writer’s art rather than the surrounding media circus. A one-time Booker Prize winner (for 1996’s Last Orders), Swift has nonetheless kept his private life out of the press, and his novels speak louder than the gossip columns ever could. Waterland and Last Orders deserve to be considered among the great novels of the late 20th century, and Swift’s craft has only grown craftier with age. Quietly, surely, he has established a body of work that lacks the extravagant fireworks of Amis and McEwan, but which is no less powerful for it.

Wish You Were Here is the latest addition to this impressive literary catalogue, and it’s undoubtedly one of Swift’s most accomplished works yet. That it’s also one of his most dense and difficult to read is no coincidence – this is a writerly novel that pushes us deep into the writer’s craft. It’s also a novel that delves into some pretty unpleasant moments in recent history, making it a doubly difficult novel to read. That Swift keeps us hooked until the final page is testament to his skill and experience.

The narrative tells the story of Jack Luxton, a Devonshire farmer who has moved to the Isle of Wight to manage a caravan park with his better half, Ellie. But a parade of betrayals and losses lurks in Jack’s past, including the death of his father and the disappearance of his mother, and when he receives the news that his brother Tom has been killed in active duty in Iraq this delicate web from which his life is constructed begins to fall apart. Set against the backdrop of the BSE ‘mad cow disease’ outbreak, the foot and mouth outbreak, and the Iraq Wars, Wish You Were Here contains more than a little irony in its title.

What’s most spectacular, however, is Swift’s handling of this dark material, and it’s here that he excels. Wish You Were Here is not a linear narrative, instead painting a patchwork of incidents and insights that slowly coalesces to form the entire picture – by which point we finally realize Jack’s true intention. The repetitions and overlapping scenes are expertly timed to obfuscate and reveal, as Jack’s memory cycles back through his life to try and make sense of the present. Even the occasional asides are just as illuminating, and the end result is a startling tour de force of complex simplicities and simple complexities.

None of this makes Wish You Were Here an easy read – but you don’t go to the literary greats for that. That Swift should be considered among their ranks is surely no longer in doubt.

Wish You Were Here is available now from all good bookstores, and the Random House website, priced $25.