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Saturday, 27 February 2016

Wish you were here

This novel by Graham Swift is contained within just a few hours of the lives of a couple who own and manage a holiday caravan site on the Isle of Wight, but it expands beyond those limits to involve the reader in the history of those characters; not so much there factual history, but their thoughts and feelings as we are invited to look back on their lives. To me this is the book's strength, but also its weakness.

Image result for swift wish you were hereThe thing is that Swift makes his reader work hard. He wastes no words on introducing his characters, or setting their scene - we have to construct that for ourselves. Swift's approach is minimalist as regards information he gives the reader about where to locate these people. He doesn't even describe them except in a vague sort of way as they appear to others. And yet he gives us more insight than we might think necessary about their thoughts, imaginings and motivations. This seems to me to be an odd combination. I like the idea of having to work as a reader and it strikes me that if Swift gave a little more context, a little more dialogue, a little more of how the characters physically see each other, and a lot less detail about their thought processes, then this would be a better book. But it is Swift's book not mine, and clearly what he is interested in is their mental state.

The central character, middle aged eldest son of a failed dairy farmer who has committed suicide, is stricken by guilt about almost everything that has ever happened to him, so it seems. And he appears likely to destroy his relationship with his wife in spite of the fact that she has been slowly and successfully making him into a more contented man. The catalyst for his fall back into depression is the death of his estranged soldier brother. Swift is good at the atmospheric things and builds tension very successfully, but the denouement is disappointing. Also there are, for me, some false steps when additional people are introduced (purchasers of the farm, an army major, a vicar and a policeman) and we get something of their thoughts as well which appear to not add to the narrative in any useful way. It's as if Swift can't resist speculating about what his characters would be thinking/feeling and doesn't want us to miss out. To me it would be better if he told us what these people were doing in relation to the central characters, and what they saw when they saw them.

It reads as if I didn't enjoy this book but I was in fact quite gripped by it. There is no doubt that Swift has a gift for capturing the chaotic thought processes that most of us experience, the vacillations and 'what ifs' we are prey to. I just felt it could have been even better.

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