There is a British army major in Graham Swift's powerful new novel "Wish You Were Here" who pays a condolence visit to Jack Luxton, brother and sole survivor of Corporal Tom Luxton, killed in Iraq by "an exceptionally lethal roadside bomb."
It is the major who perceives "something going on inside Jack Luxton, something deep and contained, that might need its outburst at some time."
Strong, intelligent and suspenseful from start to finish "Wish You Were Here" is all about Jack Luxton, his anguish, his regrets, and everything else that is "deep and contained" within him. It is a novel of mourning, of reckoning and if it is dark and terrible, it is also beautiful and moving, another stunning piece of work by the Booker Prize-winning British author Swift.
If Jack Luxton is its protagonist, so too is Jebb Farm, Jack's birthright, the dairy farm handed down for generations the Luxtons' own little piece of England until 1996 when the threat that mad cow disease will spread to humans causes the British government to order widespread slaughter of cattle, including Jebb Farm's entire stock of British Friesians.
A decade later, Jack is still reliving the moment: "Sixty-five head of healthy-seeming cattle that finally succumbed to the rushed-through culling order, leaving a silence and emptiness as hollow as the morning Mum died, and the small angry wisp of a thought floating in it: Well, they'd better be right, those experts, it had better damn well flare up some day or this will have been a whole load of grief for nothing."
If this is the beginning of the end for Jebb Farm, it is not the slaughter that finishes it, but the Luxtons themselves: Jack's father Michael will forsake the failing farm, thus forsaking Jack. Then Jack, too, will forsake his birthright, forsaking his much younger brother, Tom. Treachery all 'round, and a price to pay.
"What about Tom, Ell?" Jack will ask his soon-to-be wife, Ellie. "What about Tom?"
The question is rhetorical. Tom is somewhere Jack doesn't know where with the British army. But the question is the question of a nation. All over contemporary England, land handed down, sometimes for hundreds of years, can no longer be sustained by its owners. Mad cow disease plays a part in this; so later would hoof-and-mouth. But England was already changing.
So when Ellie who grew up at the next farm produces a way out of both farms for the two of them, Jack, swallowing his own thoughts, succumbs to her wiles. "Caravans, Jacko!" she says. "Caravans."
Caravans, to the vacationing British, are what we North Americans call trailers and, in Jack and Ellie's case, are 32 white units on the faraway Isle of Wight where renters can spend a part or all of an English summer on the shores of the English Channel. Jack had stayed in one as a child, and dreamt of the magic of it ever since.
Having the caravans, he tells himself, is "a form of livestock" and, for 10 years with the caravans, he will rarely think of Jebb Farm, his boyhood home in Devon, his roots and the roots of his ancestors as far back as he can go. For 10 years, he and Ellie will work as a team to maintain their caravan idyll. But the marriage? It's hard to say. There are no children, and Jack and Ellie's conversation lacks intimacy despite Ellie's frequent claim to knowing Jack far better than he knows himself.
Then comes word of Tom being killed in Iraq and whatever faηade Tom and Ellie are hiding behind crumbles. Ellie bails on the situation, leaving Jack to fend for himself. It is at this point that Swift gives us some of the most searing, visceral and memorable passages imaginable, all happening in a matter of days.
There is the visit of the major, the processing of the information and Jack's solitary pilgrimage to Devon for Tom's services, Tom's burial: "He felt like a man on the run. He felt a great desire not to know who he was . It seemed impossible that the familiar sights now thickening around him could still be here, or else impossible that he'd been away "
Jack is a shy, lumbering man, an Everyman with little schooling but great depth. Swift brings him to us in circular fashion sometimes in the '90s, sometimes in the aughts, each time doubling skillfully forward or back. As the book progresses, Jack's heaviness and dark circumstances become ours, and we experience that tightness of throat that can only be fear.
But we are also lulled as when Tom, in the army, thinks about cattle: "They haunted him and helped him, gave him a sort of measure. If he wanted, now, to get bad stuff out of his head, bad human pictures, it helped to replace them with cattle. He could still remember the wet jostle of the milking parlour, the smell of iodine and udder "
We are amused as well when a neighbor, Sally Warburton, declares, "If they'd all been pig farmers if this had just been pig country, none of this would have happened."
Early on, when Jack first speaks of mad cow disease, it is impossible to know the depth, and significance, of his thought. But now we know: "There is no end to madness once it takes hold. Hadn't those experts said it could take years before it flared up in human beings? So, it had flared up now in him and Ellie."
Madness is symbolic of much here. Even the Distinguished Conduct Medal handed down through the generations in the Luxton family stands for something once proud and now lost. And there is the finger-size hole in the centuries-old oak at Jebb Farm, a mystery save to those who know its meaning all too well. As for "Wish You Were Here," the phrase is like a recurring mantra in the novel of its name, a postcard, a children's rhyme, a ghastly sentiment.
When a couple with children buy the farm as a second, country home and pay dearly to renovate the house and property, we realize the couple come with their own faηade, their own form of disconnection from one another in today's England.
This reader has but one quibble with this wonderful if sometimes terrifying novel: Ellie is somehow inscrutable. She is determined, some would say hard, and she gets what she wants yet, unlike Jack, it is difficult to get under her skin, into her head.
Perhaps Swift means her not to grow and develop here, so we can bear with Jack, who does and take his side when the two, in fear, make unthinkable, irreversible accusations of one another, instantly raising overwhelming questions.
It is at this juncture that Swift's story, which gains speed almost page by page, builds to a crescendo, and we realize we not only care deeply for Jack and what he will and will not do but we are beholden to Swift for the dark but meaningful feat that is the novel "Wish You Were Here."
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.
Wish You Were Here
By Graham Swift
Knopf319 pages, $25