Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here
Graham Swift
Picador, 256pp, £18.99

Graham Swift's novels are symphonies of inarticulacy. Each of his three previous works of fiction - Last Orders, which won the Booker Prize in 1996, The Light of Day (2003) and Tomorrow (2007) - is narrated in the first person, using the clichés, solecisms and crabbed cadences of everyday speech. His latest novel is told in the third person not the first, but its protagonist, a Devon farmer turned Isle of Wight caravan-park proprietor named Jack Luxton (from whose standpoint the narrative unfolds), has a characteristically tortured and decidedly unliterary relationship to language.

At the end of one of the book's most moving set pieces, in which the body of Jack's younger brother, Tom, is "repatriated" from Iraq to RAF Lyneham, he fantasises about delivering a eulogy in front of the top brass who have gathered to greet the fallen soldier's coffin. "But it wouldn't have worked . . . because Jack Luxton could never have got up to make a speech - before lords, ladies and colonels - even to save his own damn life."

But Jack's wife, Ellie, who persuaded him to sell the farm in Devon he had inherited from his father and take over the Lookout caravan park, is a virtuoso of the ready-made phrase. She takes pride in flourishing such formulations as "steep learning curve" or "cream on the cake", as if these were emblems of distinction - though, in truth, they limn the narrowness of her horizons as surely as Jack's infelicities and hesitations do his.

As in Swift's earlier novels, the characters here are confined not just by their language but by their locale. Wish You Were Here is rooted as firmly in a corner of north Devon (and then the Isle of Wight) as Last Orders is in south-east London, or The Light of Day in SW19. Reflecting on his and Ellie's taste, acquired in their thirties, for holidaying in the Caribbean, Jack thinks: "Once upon a time . . . the notion of being anywhere other than England would have seemed totally crazy to [him]." (The novel is structured around a series of attempts to flee, some more successful than others: Tom's flight to the army; the suicide of the boys' father, Michael, in despair at the ravages of foot-and-mouth disease; Ellie's delirious jaunt as an adolescent in her father's Land Rover; her and Jack's subsequent decision to sell up and move south.)

We expect a glib phrase such as "Once up­­on a time" to fall from the lips of someone like Jack. What is less expected is his habit of unpacking his language for himself. When he insists that his brother's funeral be a private affair, in contrast to the very public repatriation, he sees that "private is a treacherous word". Is it plausible that such a thought would occur to someone whose utterances are so impoverished?

Swift's uncertain grasp of free indirect style makes it hard to work out if this is Jack's thought or the narrator's. He once wrote that, as a novelist who gives up so much to his characters, "you are vital to the whole enterprise . . . yet you are also redundant". Perhaps he is beginning to tire of being invisible.

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit