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Back in 2014 I reviewed Some Hope, published in a volume consisting of the first three of St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992) and Some Hope (1994). Mother’s Milk, was published in 2005 and short-listed for the Booker Prize. I said at the time that I was looking forward to reading it. But now that I’ve got round to it, I found I didn’t enjoy it much at all. I think this is partly the book, and partly me.

The novel begins in August 2000. By this time Patrick is practising as a barrister – though he doesn’t seem to do much actual work – and is married to Mary; they have two small children. (OK, I know August is holiday time.) The first section of the story is told through the eyes of Patrick’s son Robert, who is far more insightful and introspective than any five year old I’ve ever met. Can the birth of his little brother Thomas really cause him to remember what it felt like in the first days of his life? The second section, set in August 2001, is told through Patrick’s eyes. On holiday at his mother’s house in France, he is horrified to see the hold Seamus, clearly a fake healer and genuine con man, has over his mother Eleanor – and her property. But at the same time he is board, listless and self-pitying, and ready for an extra marital affair. The third section is Mary’s story; she devotes herself to motherhood and tries to find ways of dealing with Patrick’s infidelity. The fourth section, set in August 2003 has no particular protagonist; the family travel to America.

The book continues in the style set in the first three books; it is a clever diatribe against the fatuousness, snobbery and malice of the English upper class. St Aubyn’s ear for dialogue and his biting wit are as sharp as ever, as you can see in one of my favourite exchanges. A child has been bullying Robert; his mother offers a kind of apology. ‘I’m sorry about that … Eliot is so competitive, just like his dad, and I hate to repress all that drive and energy.’ ‘You’re relying on the penal system for that,’ Patrick replies. Gold. There is also the continuing theme of the harm parents can do to their children. Both Patrick and Mary fear to pass on to their children the deplorable traits they think their parents gave them, but is there not a danger that in avoiding those, they are passing on others?

So what’s not to like? I found Patrick too self-pitying, too much given to what one reviewer calls ‘spoiled-brat whininess’. Another reviewer, who found the book ‘enjoyable and entertaining’ wrote that ‘we are very much on his side’. But I didn’t feel that way. It’s true he is highly self-aware; consider the following exchange: ‘Oh, darling,’ said Julia, resting her hands on Patrick’s shoulders, ‘are you your own worst enemy?’ ‘I certainly hope so,’ said Patrick. ‘I dread to think what would happen if somebody else turned out to be better at it than me.’ This can be perversely amusing, but it’s highly artificial and makes me want to shake him. Ultimately I don’t care what happens to him. Obviously the reader doesn’t have to like a character, but being indifferent to them is fatal to engagement with the story.

My reaction to Patrick is perhaps symptomatic of my reaction to the whole book. When I read Some Hope back in 2014 I was still in to mood for acerbic social commentary directed at the English upper classes. Now I don’t find the whole genre funny. After dislocation arising from Brexit in England and disaster of the election of Donald Trump as President in the USA, the worsening effects of climate change and the threat of recession, the boorishness of the upper class doesn’t seem worth wasting time on. St Aubyn doesn’t see it in class terms; he sees ‘a democracy of entrapment. Everyone is trapped in their personality’. True, no doubt, but those people who aren’t the English upper class – that is most of us – are also trapped in an economic system likely to leave us much worse off than the already rich and powerful. Knowing that some upper class people are unpleasant and probably unhappy doesn’t help much. I guess I won’t be reading At Last (2012), the final novel in the set, even if it does resolve some of the issues raised in Mother’s Milk.

St Aubyn doesn’t appear to have a web-site, and has only a very brief Wikipedia entry. But you can find out much more about him, and how his fiction mirrors his life, in any of these three interviews, here, here or here.

 

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Published in 2000, my book club’s most recent choice has achieved a wide audience – well, a wider audience – through its recreation as a film of the same name (2015). It stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth, and the cast and film won five awards at the 2015 AACTAs: Best Lead Actress (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Hugo Weaving), Best Costumes (Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson) and the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Australian Film. But the book began life as a project for a creative writing class, and it shows. You can just imagine them workshopping the blurb: ‘an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture’. It’s true, though, that I saw the film before I read the book; this inevitably changed the way I read it.

Tilly Dunnage arrives back in her small home town of Dungatar with a suitcase and a sewing machine, and incredible skills as a dressmaker (and yes, I think I mean incredible, but that’s maybe because I don’t have any skills at all in the area myself). She has returned to care for her mother who lives in squalid seclusion in a house at the top of the only hill in town. We learn that Tilly was banished from Dungatar after being involved, in some initially unspecified way, in the death of another child; she has in the meantime learnt dressmaking in the leading European design houses. The residents of the town are initially almost uniformly hostile. The two main exceptions are the town’s only policeman, Sergeant Farrat, who himself loves making outrageous outfits to wear in the privacy of his house, and Teddy McSwiney, who comes from a family of outcasts himself, but has won popularity as the local football team’s star full forward. He finds Tilly the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Gradually the women of the town warm to Tilly when they find she can make clothes that make them look attractive and stylish, and gradually Tilly warms to Teddy. But then tragedy strikes. Can anything be saved from the ruins? Quick answer: no.

I bet that when they were workshopping that blurb, they thought about including ‘revenge’ and ‘magic realism’ in the list. And I’m not sure why ‘gothic’ made the cut, because it’s not a horror story, though of course horrible things happen. But it is a tale of revenge, initially satisfying, but then rather over the top. I’m not sure if revenge was always what Tilly intended; I didn’t get that impression, though others have suggested it. And perhaps the magic realism is rather more cinematic than inherent in the story, though Sergeant Farrat certainly defies ordinary credibility. The town’s entry into the eisteddfod is pretty surreal too.

Tilly’s story is the main one, but there are a number of sub plots involving the town residents. This is one of the areas that sounds to me a bit like a creative writing class exercise. Have lots of characters and tell us something interesting about them all. There were so many I had to keep going back to work out which was which, whose story belonged to whom. Most of these sub plots show people in a poor light that is sometimes funny, but often just rather nasty and rather two dimensional. One of the sub plots is actually part of Tilly’s story; it’s just a bit hard to pick it out from amongst all the others – though maybe this is intentional to add an element of mystery. The way the relationship between Tilly and her mother Molly develops doesn’t ring true to me either; I thought it was handled better in the film. (The overall plot was sharpened up a bit in the film. The beginning of the book drags a bit.)

So what of the other tag words in the blurb? Australian the book certainly is; the landscape is beautifully evoked, and the dialogue has an Aussie ring to it. The small town pettiness could probably be found anywhere, but seems to take on a particularly Australian character. And the haute couture is interesting for those with an interest in such things – whether, for example, Tilly used ‘Paris stitch for the lace trim … when she knew she should have used whip stitch.’ I’m assured by those who are interested that the haute couture is the highlight of the book. But is it enough to hang the story on? It’s perfectly legitimate to have an exotic or highly specialised craft that is central to the story, but too often it is clearly a device that doesn’t sit quite comfortably – think The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato, reviewed here, or A Cup of Light, by Nicole Mones, reviewed here. There is only one point at which the author poses the question of the human value of Tilly’s dressmaking. Teddy asks Tilly why she makes clothes for the nasty women of the town; she replied it’s what she does. ‘They’ve grown airs, they think they’re classy,’ says her mother. ‘You’re not doing them any good.’ But Molly is painted as contrary by nature (or illness and neglect), and so this can’t really be taken as the author’s view. Indeed Tilly replies ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ I was left completely unsure whether Tilly is from the beginning using her dressmaking skills to build the women up only to tear them down, whether she uses them to get the town to accept her, or whether at least initially she just likes dressmaking. Certainly her revenge is ultimately complete.  But is the haute couture part of it? Or does it lead the town to destroy itself?

You can read more about Rosalie Ham here, and more about the film version here. It’s described as ‘a revenge comedy-drama’. Unusually, most of my book group preferred it to the book.

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Published in 1988, this is Kingsolver’s first novel. Having read several of her later ones and enjoyed them very much – Prodigal Summer (2000)  is reviewed here, The Lacuna (2009) is reviewed here, and Flight Behaviour (2012) here – I was interested to see where all this started. The Bean Trees is a short book, in contrast to the much longer ones she later wrote, but she introduces some of the same themes she later develops about families and friendships, and you can see in her writing something of what she later achieves much more fully.

Marietta – Missy Greer – she later changes the Marietta to Taylor – is born and brought up by her single mother in poor, rural Kentucky. But she clings to the idea that she doesn’t have to do what most of the local girls do – get pregnant, get married and stay there for the rest of their lives; as her mother says, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen isn’t her style. Her life is changed when a new teacher arrives at the high school, not in the usual way in stories of opening her mind to education, but by the fact that his wife, a nurse at the local hospital, needs someone to work there part-time, and he gives Missy the job. She saves enough that, after graduating from high school – an achievement in itself – she can change her name to Taylor, buy an old car and head west in search of adventure. But in Oklahoma her car breaks down. She stops at a garage and restaurant near a Cherokee Indian reservation, and is literally left holding a baby when a Native American woman thrusts it into her hands and drives away.  What should she do?

The plot is relatively slight; as I said, it’s a short book. It also seems to me a little unrealistic. However It turns on the fact that the child Taylor is given is Native American, and maybe what happens is possible in such a scenario. The story also has some interesting present-day relevance, one strand being about illegal immigration into the United States. But plot isn’t everything. Kingsolver also delights in set piece descriptions which add warmth and colour, but aren’t really about advancing the action. Examples are scattered through the book; they include the results Missy sees of an accident when working at the hospital, the fast food restaurant she works at, a dinner, and a picnic. These all give her the opportunity to draw a cast of sympathetic characters; there is no one with any significant part in the plot who is cruel or unpleasant, though cruelty and misery lurk on its borders.

I find it interesting to compare this book with Flight Behaviour, which is also about a woman, Dellarobia, from a poor white community, this time in Tennessee. Both Taylor and Dellarobia are struggling to take control of their lives. Like Missy, Dellarobia dreams of flight, though unlike her, she did get pregnant, married, and stayed in her community. Like Taylor, her life is changed by a stranger (though he is a product of strange events, not chance). Like Taylor, her main concerns are her children, and family relationships. But in the later book, these issues are treated with much greater sophistication and maturity. Though The Bean Trees is told primarily in the first person, and Flight Behaviour in the third person, Dellarobia comes alive much more vividly for me than Missy/Talyor. And the great social and environmental issue addressed in Flight Behaviour, the impact of climate change, is much more fully developed, and more integral to the story than the illegal immigration strand in The Bean Trees. I say this not as a criticism of the earlier book, but to note how brilliantly Kingsolver’s work has matured.

One of the attractions for me of Kingsolver’s work is the deep commitment to social justice that runs through all of her books that I have read. In 2000, she established the Bellwether Prize, a literary prize is intended to support writers whose unpublished works support positive social change and human justice. Given her support for feminism, environmentalism and human rights, it not perhaps surprising in today’s America that she has her critics. Writing in the New Republic, (not, to be fair, a conservative publication) one commentator responded to The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by calling her a master of “Calamity Writing” and wrote that she offers “the mere appearance of goodness as a substitute for honest art”. He also characterized her as an “easy, humorous, competent, syrupy writer [who] has been elevated to the ranks of the greatest political novelists of our time”. I certainly don’t agree; I think she is a great political novelist. For example, I find it interesting that Kingsolver gives us a detailed and sympathetic, yet acute picture of the poor white communities to whom Donald Trump, now the President elect, appeals, and who are often demonized by liberal Americans. And I find her writing masterful. You can, however, read her opinion of Donald Trump here. I can scarcely imagine what she must be feeling about the outcome of the election.

You can read more about Barbara Kingsolver here. Pigs in Heaven (1993) is a sequel to The Bean Trees.

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Like many of Ian McEwan’s books, Sweet Tooth (2012) is a story with a twist. For better or worse, before reading it I saw a review which unconscionably gave away that twist. This means I didn’t read the book in the way the writer intended; I already had knowledge that put a different slant on things. I’m not going to reveal the twist, but it may be that my reading is a bit perverse because of knowing it. I did wonder if the reviewer gave away the twist because it made the book more interesting to write about. If so, I can see there may be some excuse for this; the twist means there are a whole series of double meanings which give a sardonic humour to the story. Yet you can’t pick up on the double meanings unless you know the twist, read the book twice, or have far better recall than I do. But even though these double meanings are clever, knowing what’s to come meant I didn’t find the story compelling.

Sweet Tooth is billed as a spy story, but even trying to think about it without foreknowledge of the twist, it lacked for me the interest, let alone the high tension of good spy novels like Le Carré’s. In the late 1960s, beautiful young Serena Frome goes to Cambridge to study mathematics because her mother wants her to. She spends most of her time reading fiction and doesn’t get a good degree, but enjoys various affairs, the most important being with a History tutor, who is much older than she is. He gets her an interview with MI5, who take her on. Most of the work she (and other female graduates with much better degrees) gets to do is purely clerical. But because of her knowledge of fiction, she is given the task of vetting an author who MI5 think might fit into an operation they have named Sweet Tooth. Believing that much of the literature and commentary of the time is left-leaning, they want to subsidise, through a compliant Foundation, authors that might be critical of communism and the Eastern bloc – rather similar to the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. She is sent as a representative of the Foundation to interview the writer, a university lecturer named Tom Haley. He is pleased to accept the stipend offered because he wants to write without having to spend most of his time teaching. But Serena and Tom find they are mutually attracted. Furthermore, one of her colleagues is also jealously attracted to her. What could possible go wrong? The story is helped along by a minor twist concerning her Cambridge lover, with the major twist coming at the end.

Of course even without the twist – though the novel is inconceivable without it – there is much more to the book than a genre-style spy story. (I was amused to note that McEwan has adopted some of Le Carré’s spy jargon, with ‘the watchers’, a ‘honey trap’ and the ‘fifth floor’. I’m sure he’s being deliberately referential.) There is the usual clever if somewhat facile characterisation, achieved with minimum fuss; you can for example perfectly visualise Serena’s parents, though is there a resort to stereotypes involved? I found Serena rather shallow. And then there is the interesting setting of London in the bleak years of the early 70’s, the coal strike, the three day week and the Irish troubles; people wore dressing gowns at work over coats to try and keep warm in unheated buildings. Even if the suspense isn’t as developed as in a Le Carré’ spy story, there is some tension as Serena is increasingly embroiled in lies which threaten both her personal and professional life. There are also some dead-ish ends which feel a bit like padding.

Because Serena reads lots of fiction, and because she is involved personally and professionally with a writer, McEwan has lots of opportunity to comment on literature. Serena tells us – the story is presented in the first person – that she doesn’t like post- modern writers who were ‘determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions … I believed writers were paid to pretend … So no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in books I liked for the double agent.’ She believes in ‘mutual trust’ between reader and writer, and dislikes the ‘fictional trick’. Haley, on the other hand, admires post-modern novelists – though he isn’t really given much scope to explain why. And of course McEwan’s work is the height of ‘tricksy’, the novel depends on a fictional trick. And what would a spy story be without a double agent? In terms of her relationship with Tom, Serena is her own double agent. The point of all this cleverness is only made clear at the end.

Some reviewers have suggested that there is a large measure of autobiography in McEwan’s presentation of Haley. Serena reads and summarises – at boring and surely unnecessary length – several of Haley’s short stories and his short dystopian novel; the stories in particular apparently sound very like some of McEwan’s early short stories, given their bleak or ‘noir’ character. (The short novel actually sounds like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only worse.) Haley’s agent and publisher are, or were, actually McEwan’s. Haley teaches at the University of Sussex, where McEwan did his undergraduate degree; he is clearly satirising Selena’s snobbish approach to the place. And Haley reflects McEwan’s literary tastes, as you can see from the final twist.

The novel has generally been favourably reviewed, for example here, and here, so my rather lukewarm response may indeed arise from knowing the twist. But I don’t think so; indeed its cleverness, which lies in its ‘tricksy’ nature, is not evident on a first read (though maybe the reviewers knew the twist …)  McEwan is generally considered to be an excellent story teller, but I just can’t get excited about this one. It’s too clever by half. You can see from my reviews that I didn’t much like Solar (2010), reviewed here, or even his Booker Prize winning Amsterdam (1998) reviewed here. So best read the book. Twice.  If you can be bothered.

You can find out more about Ian McEwan and his work here.

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Foreign Correspondence (1997) is an early autobiographical work, coming before Brooks had published any of her prize-winning fiction. You can read my review of one of her well-regarded novels, People of the Book (2008) here. This one is not really an autobiography as such; rather it’s a view of her life through a particular lens which focuses on the themes of staying and leaving.

The book has a sub-title – which doesn’t for some reason appear on the edition I read – which pretty much tells you what it is about: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over. As a child being brought up in what she suggests was one of the more boring suburbs of Sydney, Brooks finds ‘the opening I’d looked for to the wider world’ by writing to pen friends, first in Sydney, then America, Israel, Palestine and France. Much later in life, she decides to follow up her pen friends and find out what has happened to them. Thus in Part I the book follows her life growing up in the suburbs and her departure from Australia to become a foreign correspondent – hence the full double meaning of the title. Then in Part II comes the later intertwining of her life with those of her pen friends and the wider world. ‘The geography of this childhood correspondence,’ she writes, ‘has become the road map of the adult life.’

Although she is quite self-deprecating about it, Brooks is clearly exceptionally clever. Is there something in her childhood circumstances that contributed to this? Is it nature or nurture, or possibly, a bit of both? She was effectively an only child; her only sister was eight years older. Her father was an American jazz singer who put all that behind him soon after settling in Australia, to become a sub-editor on the Sydney Morning Herald; he has clearly influenced her life choices. Through his interest in journalism, she came to see that ‘Australians had lives that were worth writing about’. He was not an easy man; ‘I learned that if I wanted to talk to him it was easier to follow his adult interests’. From this she comes to see that there is a world outside Australia, and sets out to find out about it though reading, and her search for pen pals. However in this account, Brooks’s mother is perhaps the greater influence. As a child Brooks was often ill and unable to go to school; it was her mother who helped and encouraged her, and played games that inspired and informed her creative imagination. It was her mother who could ‘enter a child’s world with ease and spend comfortable hours there’, giving Brooks comfort and security in what might otherwise have been a lonely childhood. School – a Catholic girls’ college – is passed over with little comment; clearly she does not see it as an important formative influence.

Brooks grew up passionate about whatever it was that caught her interest, be it Star Trek, kibbutz in Israel, or the Paris student uprising in 1968. All of these coincided with or contributed to her search for pen friends. Sometimes she doesn’t get quite what she expects, either from her pen friends, or her unfulfilled teenage rebelliousness. She is, nevertheless, able to conclude from the victory of Whitlam’s ALP in the 1972 Australian election that ‘It is a great thing, at seventeen, to learn that it’s possible to change the world’. But it is inevitable that she will, like many others, leave Australia to pursue the fulfilment she seeks overseas.

I’m not going to outline the stories of each of Brooks’s pen friends. They all raise interesting and sometimes disturbing questions about life choices, perceptions of the world, and its realities. Each of them opens up a conversation that Brooks confronts with honesty and humanity, and sometimes humour. She writes with an easy fluency, honed perhaps by her experience as a journalist, and coming to full fruition in her later fiction. The use of her penfriends as a way into her life and experiences works exceptionally well as a structure for the book.

As an Australian brought up in an even more boring suburb than Brooks, I can’t help comparing our experiences. She’s younger than I am – though her schooling was apparently a bit less empowering – and that makes it a bit easier for me to accept her complete superiority in everything she’s done. I can only admire her courage and determination, as well, of course, as her intellectual prowess. Why didn’t I keep writing to my pen friend?

You can read more about Geraldine Brooks here. And this site contains a list of her works of fiction, which include the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, a major achievement since the prize is for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. Brooks became an American citizen in 2002. But she still calls Australia ‘home’, sort of; you may be interested in her Boyer Lectures 2011: The Idea of Home (or “At Home in the World”).

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In the interests of fair disclosure, I have to say up front that I’m not a fan of Peter Carey. I didn’t even enjoy his (second) Booker Prize winning novel, True History of the Kelly Gang (2001), reviewed here. The Chemistry of Tears (2012) shares one of the same devices used in the earlier book: a story imagined around a real event or object. In this case it is an automaton, a swan that moves as if real. The story is partly about its creation, and partly about its restoration. Carey says that happening to see it being refurbished in a museum was the impetus behind the book.

Catherine Gerhig is a horologist who works at the Swinburne Museum (the V&A?) in London. One day her secret, married lover, who also works there, dies suddenly, leaving her bereft. Her boss, who may be in love with her too, gives her a new project to distract her: the reconstruction of a mechanical swan. The other half of the story, told in sections that alternate with Catherine’s, concerns Henry Brandling, a rich Victorian whose beloved son is ill with consumption. Henry hopes that the gift of a mechanical toy will improve his health, or even cure him. He initially thinks he has commissioned a mechanical duck, but the German watchmaker/inventor instead constructs the swan. Catherine reads Brandling’s story in the journal he kept of while the automaton was being constructed.

There are clearly meant to be parallels between the stories: whether ‘the huge peace of mechanical things’ can overcome grief is central to both of them. Both Catherine and Henry experience misery, rage almost amounting to madness, frustration and betrayal. It is a matter of opinion whether the two stories are fitted together like a well-oiled machine, or are mechanical in the pejorative sense. Catherine’s story has oddities enough, but Henry’s journal is positively opaque, and I got quite lost trying to work out what was going on. Much of it relates the story of the German watchmaker, Sumper, who has more or less kidnapped Henry; he tells Henry about the time he spent in London working with Sir Albert Cruickshank on something that sounds a bit like a computer, whose aim was to bring order out of chaos. Again there is a clear parallel with the reconstruction of the swan, but so what?

It doesn’t help that I found it hard to empathise with Catherine. She seems to have been made needlessly unpleasant, responding to grief with alcohol, drugs and rudeness. Nor could I understand her relationship with her assistant, who is apparently some sort of spy – but who for and why bother – with the Dickensian name of Amanda Snyde. She seems to have some kind of weird religious interest in the mechanism that makes the swan work, but again, I couldn’t see the point of it. I understand that not everything in a novel has to have some point, but in a novel about fitting together parts so they will move, you’d think her role would one of those moving parts. Perhaps it was and I failed to see it. But if so, I’m surprised that no one else in my book group could figure it out either.

Of course it’s not Catherine’s fault I couldn’t relate to her, or Amanda’s that she seems crazy; it’s Carey’s. I just don’t think he writes well about women. I didn’t find either of them convincing. It’s true I’ve been prejudiced against him ever since he wrote dismissively of his former wife – who had been his editor and muse – in his 2006 book Theft: a Love Story (though he shrugs this accusation off. You can read about it here). But the rest of the book club, who don’t share my prejudice, agreed neither character was realistic.

A review in the Guardian by the eminent writer and critic Andrew Motion didn’t suggest he had any of these problems with the book; rather the opposite. For him Carey exhibits ‘an easy-seeming mastery’ and is ‘too subtle a writer to spell out precise meanings …’ You can read his glowing assessment – ‘an impressive achievement’ –  here.

I have to admit that the swan itself is interesting, though I find it a bit bizarre. It was actually made in the eighteenth century, not the nineteenth as in this story. It is housed in the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Teesdale, County Durham, England. You can read about it here, and watch a YouTube of it in action here.

You can read more about Peter Carey’s life and work on his website.

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Graham Swift is not a prolific writer; he publishes a new book every four or five years. Having loved two of his earlier ones, Waterland (1983) and the Booker Prize-winning Last Orders (1996) (reviewed here), I always have high expectations of a new one. Wish You Were Here (2011) (not to be confused with Taylor Swift’s song of the same name) is the second to last of his books. It covers some similar ground to Last Orders, but somehow it doesn’t quite come up to the standard of the earlier book.

The story uses the same techniques as much of Swift’s writing in that it jumps backwards in time from present to past. Like Last Orders, it tells of a journey that ends in a funeral. Jack Luxton, the last of a long line of dairy farmers in Devon, has sold his land and with his wife Ellie has become the owner/manager of a caravan park on the Isle of Wight. The story begins with Jack standing with a shotgun in his Isle of Wight cottage after a fight with his wife. Is he going to shoot himself, or her, or both of them? The pressure of not knowing builds throughout the story. The fight seems to be over something relatively trivial: Ellie’s refusal to accompany Jack to the funeral of his brother, a soldier killed in Iraq. But it has called into question everything in Jack’s past: the effects of the mad cow disease cull of their farm animals, his brother Tom’s decision to run away and join the Army, the death of their father, his marriage to Ellie, daughter of a neighbouring farmer, the sale of the farm land, and of the old farm house to London yuppies as a country retreat.

Unlike Last Orders, where a range of people had a voice in the story, this story is told largely from Jack’s perspective, though Ellie and Tom do get brief turns. This allows Ellie to be presented in a largely unfavourable light. It is she who has taken the initiative in selling the farm and moving to the Isle of Wight, she who resents the hold the memory of Tom has over his brother Jack. Has she trashed the things that were important to Jack? Her contributions to the story do something to balance this negative view of her, and after all, Jack went along with all this. Perhaps it is his sense of self-betrayal that Swift is getting at – the giving up of his heritage. ‘The smell of cow dung mingling with earth, the cheapest, lowliest of smells, but the best. Who wouldn’t wish for that as their birthright and their last living breath?’

One of the issues with Jack is that although the story is mostly in his hands, he is essentially inarticulate. He has trouble putting his feelings into words. The title of the book comes from the wording of a postcard he sent as a boy to Ellie while away on a rare beach holiday in a caravan with his mother and brother. The holiday is one of the best times of his life. Yet he misses Ellie. How can he convey this complex message of ‘honesty and guilt’? The other side of the inarticulate coin is that a single word, like ‘holiday’ or ‘caravan’ conjures up a whole complex of emotions. When his brother leaves, he gives him a card and says goodbye at the same time. But he can’t think of anything better or more intimate to say than: “‘Good luck, Tom. I’ll be thinking of you.’ Which was a foolish thing perhaps to have said, because it was exactly what he’d written on the card.” While I’m sure that Swift is making the point that inarticulate people have strong feelings, it forces him at times into third party narrator expedients like ‘he might have said but didn’t’ which aren’t really convincing. Which is not to say that Swift doesn’t write well; he does, really well.

Even though both are about a death, Wish You Were Here is a much grimmer book than Last Orders. It seems that Swift’s world view has darkened. The decline of the dairy industry, hit first by BSE and then by foot and mouth disease (after Jack has sold up, but he still feels somehow involved), the war in Iraq, the shadowy war on terror, economic and social inequality, all have more or less direct impacts on Jack. One of Swift’s great talents is to draw connections either directly or through metaphor; Jack’s shotgun, for example, is both a real object and a symbol of other deaths, both in the story and beyond, so a story that is limited in time and space acquires much wider ramifications.

I note that the Guardian review sees the story as a meditation on Englishness. Certainly Jack thinks of the farm as a ‘little bit of England’. It is an elegy for a lost world, and perhaps loss is a particularly English sentiment at the moment. I’m not sure of Swift’s intention. It may be so, but he is at least as interested in the impact of writers from outside Britain in the magic realist tradition as in internal soul searching. There isn’t any magic realism as such in the story, but there is a slightly surreal quality to some of the writing. For example Jack finds he can’t be sure of what’s real and what’s merely in his head. And to bear out my point about the interrelatedness of Swift’s themes, there is the madness everywhere – arising from BSE, reflected in of culling healthy animals, the madness of the war in Iraq, the madness, it seems, of modern life … Such madness is hardly confined to England.

You can read the review I referred to here. Swift doesn’t seem to have a website – which isn’t really surprising, he seems a very private person – but you can read a bit more about him here. His most recent book, Mothering Sunday (2016), has received much praise, so is a must read for me.

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