The Lookout

Graham Swift's "Wish You Were Here"

Graham Swift’s “Wish You Were Here”

While appearing to be very different, there are some startling similarities in theme between the last two novels I’ve read: Katherine Webb’s The Half Forgotten Song, for Dorset, and Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here, set partly in the Isle of Wight. Both are grounded at the English seaside and yet contradict the usual idyllic stereotypes; both feature aging characters tied to their landscape and haunted by their past; both are hung up on the horrors of war, whether that be WWII, the Iraq War or even war within oneself. What’s more, the main households in the novels are called The Watch (Webb) and The Lookout (Swift)…The theme of looking on at the world outside whilst being cut off from it – of being left alone, in other words, to be terrorised by one’s own mind – could not be more strongly shared. Strange, eh?

The protagonist of Wish You Were Here is the taciturn but quietly emotional (and frankly brilliantly- and heart-wrenchingly-written) Jack Luxton. Jack is the last in a long line of Luxton farmers from Devon, but he cut all ties with the area and moved to the Isle of Wight with his wife Ellie after his parents’ death. His Devon years, at the family home at Jebb Farm, were wracked with hardship and grief though, at times (almost exclusively because of the love and admiration he has for his little brother Tom), filled with immense joy. Having to cope with their mother’s death, an outbreak of the fatal BSE (mad cow disease) in the UK – at which point they were forced to murder their own beloved cattle and plunge themselves into economic hardship – and their father’s deterioration after both events was too much for the young Jack and Tom. On the morning of Tom’s eighteenth birthday, after having confided in Jack, Tom ran away before sunrise to join the army; ran away from the home that has become their prison, filled with bitterness and hatred. Jack, meanwhile, protected Tom’s flight, bottled his own emotions against all odds, and remained.

Cows suffering from BSE disease display an inability to stand up or walk and lower milk production, among other symptoms.

Cows suffering from BSE disease display an inability to stand up or walk and lower milk production, among other symptoms.

Years later, having heard nothing from Tom despite his numerous letters, but no less well-remembered of him, Jack has become the owner of Lookout caravan park on the Isle of Wight. He fled with Ellie, as soon as his father’s death freed him, away from Jebb Farmhouse and all its horrible memories, to “the bottom of the Isle of Wight” (4) where he could no longer see or be reminded of the Devonshire landscape, to “a whole separate land, with only a short sea to cross, but happily cut off from the land of their past” (210). Not only cut off from the past, as it happens, but also from current events in the rest of the world that would otherwise fill him with concern: such as wars that Tom may be involved in. “There was a war going on, that was the story. Though who would know, or want to know, down here at Sands End?” (60).

Another thing the Isle of Wight offers Jack that he never had at Jebb farm (thanks to his father) is the opportunity to be in control, to take agency. He sees his new herd – caravans this time, rather than cattle – as “an encampment, down there […] some expeditionary, ragtag army” (30). He even has souvenir flags of the site to stake his claim (yet again those war themes and motifs). In his new position, he is no longer only “that common enough creature, a landsman, by experience and disposition” but has also become “an islander” (135) – someone with a well-defined, watery-bordered, manageable-sized patch to patrol. On an island, there can be no confusion about where the boundaries lie. Can there?

Caravan Park on the Isle of Wight

Caravan Park on the Isle of Wight

Well, it turns out there can, because Jack simply cannot allow himself to fully let go of his past. Despite trying to convince himself that he is an army general, in possession of his own little piece of England, displaying no vulnerability, there are times when his confusion about his “proper place” (3) and his true identity have him at war with himself: “A war on terror, that was the general story. Jack knew that terror was a thing you felt inside, so what could a war on terror be, in the end, but a war against yourself?” (60).

Jack is haunted, daily, by “the strange, opposite feeling: that he should have been there, back at Jebb, in the thick of it; it was his proper place” (3). His is a farming family of “generations going back and forwards, like the hills” (22) around Jebb, and to leave that place is, in essence, to forsake everything and everyone he loved. He remembers the feeling, with pain and regret, of being so tied to the Devon farmland that “England had meant only what the eye could see from Jebb Farmhouse – or what lay within a ten-mile journey in the Land Rover or pick-up. There’d been a few day-trips to Exeter or Barnstaple. Two stays, once, in another county: Dorset. Even the Isle of Wight, once, would have seemed like going abroad” (56). There is an intimate connection between himself and “a certain kind of bulging hill, a certain kind of hunched, bunched geography […] areas of bare hearth with a familiar ruddy hue” (219). It is a connection that he fears to reawaken because of the grief and guilt he feels for running away. Ironically, he is only filled with admiration for Tom for doing precisely the same thing at age eighteen.

Author Graham Swift

Author Graham Swift

But I haven’t even pointed out the main crux of the novel. As the blurb says, “on an autumn day in 2006”, Jack “receives the news that his brother Tom, not seen for years, has been killed in Iraq.” Hurled into the midst of repatriative and funereal affairs, Jack’s emotional state, married life and whole understanding of self hangs by a thread: memories of the brothers’ past together whirl by him all the stronger, and “the map of England wheel[s] in his head” (217) as the world becomes “all unknown country now” (132), with “the rain beating a tattoo against it” (353).

This novel is utterly mesmerising, dizzyingly suspenseful and, above all, completely heart-wrenching in every respect. It is not often that I am as genuinely moved by a novel as I was by this one. There are a whole cast of characters that I have not even mentioned who simply and yet deeply drawn, being fundamentally relatable even in sometimes such bizarre situations. Above all, however, Jack Luxton is Swift’s absolute star feature of this novel. The non-linear approach Swift uses (he jumps about between past and present and narrative perspective regularly) means the reader clings to Jack’s perception of events to ground their understanding; we are intimately tied up in the way he sees the world, and my goodness it is a unique way. You must read this, you really must. 5/5 stars for a thoroughly moving read.

Next week I’ll be reading my penultimate book for this challenge! It’s Eva Ibbotson’s The Dragonfly Pool. Join me then!

 

SWIFT, Graham. Wish You Were Here. London: Picador, 2012.

Featured Image: Military repatriation.

http://www.barrowuponsoarwarmemorial.co.uk/page6.htm

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The Watch

In the past couple of weeks I’ve read novels from Dorset and the Isle of Wight (review to follow), counties which often epitomise the idea of the English seaside holiday, where there are “rock pools rather than hot sun, seaweed rather than find white sand” (Webb, 53). Of course, these novels would not have been hugely interesting if they had not challenged this stereotype – and challenge it they did. “Holidaymakers – there were always some” (Webb 46), one character notes, but there are also those who are always unable to leave.

Katherine Webb's "The Half-Forgotten Song"

Katherine Webb’s “The Half-Forgotten Song”

First of all, I read Katherine Webb’s Dorset-based tale, The Half-Forgotten Song. You may remember that I very much enjoyed The Legacy by the same author earlier in the year, and I was not disappointed by my second foray into her work. Much like The Legacy, in fact, this story is made up of two narratives: one situated in the past (memories of the now elderly Dimity Hatcher from several childhood summers) and one in the present, with writer and art-collector Zach revisiting the village of Blacknowle in Dorset, meeting Dimity and uncovering her history for the very first time. Both narratives revolve around one man: the artist, Charles Aubrey.

Zach’s life has gone a little to pot recently: his relationship has broken down; his young daughter Elise has been moved abroad by his ex; his small but precious art gallery in London is dwindling into obscurity; and although he has already drained his publisher’s advance, he just cannot find the time, motivation or material to complete his book on the subject closest to his heart: the life and work of famed 20th century artist Charles Aubrey. That is, until his publisher warns him that a competing writer is close on his heels with a book on the same lines, and Zach realises he had better get a move on.

Zach is desperate to find a new slant on the oft-told story of Aubrey’s life to feature in his book. Who are the mysterious, unknown faces in his paintings? Is any one of his apparent succession of mistresses still alive to tell her tale? Why did Aubrey choose to return with his family, year-after-year in the 1930s, to the same tiny, beachy village of Blacknowle? Possessed by these unanswered questions, Zach shuts his gallery and journeys westward to Dorset, to see if anyone still remembers the artist, and can provide any answers.

Kimmeridge Bay, close to fictional Blacknowle where the novel is set.

Kimmeridge Bay, close to fictional Blacknowle where the novel is set.

To his profound astonishment, it isn’t long until he stumbles accidentally across the real-life, wrinkled Dimity Hatcher – the beautiful ‘Mitzy’ that features in many of Aubrey’s paintings from the period, as well as his so-called mistress. Now, hidden away from the world in her cottage, presumed dead by all other Aubrey-philes, timid Dimity is haunted by her own demons. Zach works painstakingly and tenderly to gain her trust and extract her secrets – but will the truth end up helping or hindering him? Will Zach’s city-born belief that “it’s kind of restful, being surrounded by landscape, rather than people” (160) stand up in the face of Dimity’s pain?

It is through Dimity, most of all, that we get a view of the county’s landscape and outlook. Whether as an old lady or as a poor, fourteen-year-old gypsy scavenger in 1937, Mitzy is absolutely tethered to her locality:

“There were roots indeed, holding her tightly. As tightly as the scrubby pine trees that grew along the coast road, leaning their trunks and all their branches away from the sea and its battering winds. Roots she had no hope of breaking, any more than those trees had, however much they strained. Roots she had never thought of trying to break, until Charles Aubrey and his family had arrived, and given her an idea of what the world was like beyond Blacknowle, beyond Dorset. Her desire to see it was growing by the day; throbbing like a bad tooth and just as hard to ignore” (193).

It is Aubrey who awakens her to the idea of what exoticism might lie outside of Blacknowle. Morocco, where the family also holidays, is as far away as Mitzy can possibly imagine – and she can imagine no further away than “Cornwall, or even Scotland” (113). Each year, as the family comes and goes from the village, Dimity becomes more and more conscious that she “had remained the same, static” (229). But while she sees them with respect and through awed eyes, they envisage her as the embodiment of Dorset simplicity, ignorance and mythical “old magic” (194). In her naivety, she is flattered by Aubrey’s wish to use her as his muse, failing to realise that he will never adore the subject of his paintings as much as she adores him.

Eventually, as the story unravels, Mitzy comes to realise that while Aubrey appreciates her precisely because of her place in the ancient and natural landscape, it is the landscape that also traps her, inhibits her and, in her old age, terrifies her:

“The wind was so strong […]. The gale tore around the corners of the cottage, humming down the chimney, crashing in the trees outside. But louder than any of that was the sea, beating against the stony shore, breaking over the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. A bass roar that she seemed to feel in her chest, thumping up through her bones from the ground beneath her feet […] The smell of the sea was so dear, so familiar. It was the smell of everything she knew; the smell of her home, and her prison; the smell of her own self” (1-2).

Author, Katherine Webb

Author, Katherine Webb

This is a novel about beautiful, terrorising landscapes that are adored by some and loathed by others. It is also a novel that encourages my good opinion of Webb for the way it is written and its suspenseful tone, although the profound, relatable characters present in The Legacy were unfortunately not as present here – I suppose largely because they were either distinctly unlikeable (Dimity) or downright average (Zach). Webb does balances the plotlines between past and present effectively, so that both engage the reader and build tension. In some places, however, I thought the pace could have moved things along quicker – it did occasionally drag. In terms of personal preference, I did not enjoy the subject of the story quite as much as I did The Legacy. Indeed, at certain points I did feel slight irritation that some memories seemed quite contrived or unrealistic – I did find myself thinking such things as ‘she wouldn’t really remember that – it’s only in there to tie up a loose end of the mystery’. So some of the narrative ‘weaving’ could have been more natural. But overall a good (half-forgettable!) book, so 3/5 stars.

As mentioned, I’ll shortly be reviewing the Isle of Wight novel Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift. Stay tuned!

 

WEBB, Katherine. A Half Forgotten Song. London: Orion, 2012.

Featured Image: Ghostly Tyneham, a deserted village in Dorset, near to fictional Blacknowle where the novel is set. It was taken over by the war office in 1943 for military training and never returned to the locals.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/37801007@N07/4875435993/

 

The Hills Are Alive

Pressing the play button above will unleash the flowing soprano of Madeleine Grey, singing “Bailero” from Canteloube: Songs of the Auvergne.

Jonathan Coe's "The Rain Before It Falls"

Jonathan Coe’s “The Rain Before It Falls”

This is the theme tune to this novel. The music weaves in and out of characters’ lives, sweeping, eerily and yet dream-like, over the Shropshire landscape, tying together past and present, the real and the imagined. It seems to echo through the hills in the same way as the story does. The Rain Before It Falls, by Jonathan Coe, is a novel that delves under the convenient façade of comfortable homes and happy families, to force its characters – particularly its women – to question who they are and how they have come to be.

Gill and her two grown-up daughters, Catharine and Elizabeth, are active, intelligent and accomplished; they live busy lives spread across the south of England, and their family seems a close and contented one. So absorbed are they in their day-to-day affairs that they barely register the world around them; “the warmth of inside” has, for years, distracted them from how “chilly” (1) the air has become. It is only when elderly Aunt Rosamund dies, leaving behind audio tapes narrating the whole family’s history – spilling secrets, reopening old wounds and exposing rumours and truths – that their eyes are opened to the lack of connection and meaning in the modern world; a modern world that is slowly turning the past into half-forgotten memory, imagination, myth. Suddenly, a search for understanding begins; can they reach enlightenment before it is too late, before the tapes finish, the photographs are put away and the present day swallows them once more? Can they find the rain before it falls?

The majority of this novel is narrated by Rosamund as she describes, in detail, twenty family photographs and the generations of stories behind them. We ‘listen’ as Gill and her daughters listen – without knowing what the final result will be and blind to the images in Rosamund’s lap. But, my goodness, the description Coe uses didn’t leave me blind for long – each photo seemed to come alive in its minutest detail, becoming as familiar and recognisable to me as if it were pinned in one of my own albums. The intuition develops in fluid layers: we see where individuals are positioned in the image and what the occasion shows; we glimpse what lurks at the edges of the frame or behind the forced smiles; we realise what the photograph summarily fails to capture. In fact, reading these passages isn’t like reading at all: the writing transcends the pages to become an audible and – in terms of the photos – tangible story.

Evacuees in Shropshire, where Rosamund was sent during WW2.

Evacuees in Shropshire, where Rosamund was sent during WW2.

There is a tense triadic relationship in the novel between photography, memory and imagination. To begin with, the photographs seem to provide the unshakeable historic “facts” (113), reliable in their frozen, unchanging existence in a way that Rosamund’s “phantom memories” (39) can never be. Memories are, after all, one step from “fantasies, imaginings” (39), and Rosamund frequently admits, “I think this is something I am now imagining, not a memory at all” (45-6).

And yet, Rosamund also despairs at “what a deceitful thing a photograph is” (193), for “although it seems to record an occasion with perfect fidelity, it actually gives no indication of what was going through the minds of the people who were there” (130). Even as she relies on the photos to structure her story, she seems to loathe them for their trickery: “everybody smiles for photographs – that’s one of the reasons you should never trust them” (214). The photos cannot live up to her often rich memories, as “there are no colours […]; it is a black-and-white photograph”, failing to capture even the simplest details, like “the letterbox in the front door, which my father painted yellow, I remember” (36).

Ultimately, Coe presents Rosamund’s fight with the realisation that, without photographs, her memories fail; without memories, photographs mean nothing. And when Rosamund is gone, taking her memories with her, there can be “no pictures, no corroboration, no proof” (39) of all the years of love, hate, joy, grief, dreams and struggles expended to give Catherine and Elizabeth the lives they have now. This mesmerising novel is clouded with a sense of Rosamund’s conflicting desperation and exhaustion, a heartrending combination – there is so much going on in this short novel, and Coe’s writing…well, I could want nothing more.

Coe builds dark voids between each of his characters, and Rosamund’s deathbed endeavour to link past with present and reunite distant family members is made all the more tragic and hopeless by the sense that, in death, she is the most disconnected character of all. What is more,  Rosamund’s funeral is “curiously unsocial” (4); Gill’s husband is plagued constantly “with a sense of having obscurely failed her” (2); Gill’s children, despite their apparent closeness, sometimes seem to her like “alien beings” (4)…Even the members of this nuclear unit seems “so distant” and “ill at ease” (9) at times, as though “a sort of wordless distance [had] open[ed] up between them, a sudden bewildered awareness that somehow, without anybody noticing, they had become strangers to one another” (21).

Long Mynd in the Shropshire Hills

Long Mynd in the Shropshire Hills

This lack of connection seems to have a lot to do with – and even be a symptom of – the modern world that Coe describes as infiltrating the “beloved county of [Rosamund’s] wartime childhood” (9). In her memory, Gill sees Shropshire “in vivid primary colours” but it now seems “washed grey […] a sheet of perfect white, signifying nothing” with the “imperishable noise of far-off traffic” (2) crowding in on its once secluded boundaries. Dank and dirty London is creeping ever-closer, with its “imagined dangers of […] bombs [and] once-routine tube and bus journeys suddenly turned into wagers with life and death” (1). Gill does not consider herself part of provincial Shropshire nor attune to London life.

Rosamund, in contrast, is “rooted in the Shropshire landscape, saturated with the colours and contours of its hills” (102) which “are part of your story” (94), she tells her descendants. She takes comfort in the landscape, for it soothes all ills:

“Places like this are important to me – to all of us – because they exist outside the normal timespan. You can stand on the backbone of the Long Mynd and not know if you are in the 1940s, the 2000s, the tenth or eleventh century…It is all immaterial, all irrelevant. […] You cannot put a price on the sense of freedom and timelessness that is granted to you there, as you stand on the high ridge beneath a flawless sky of April blue and look across at the tame beauties of the English countryside, to the east, and to the west a hint of something stranger – the beginnings of the Welsh mountains” (94-5).

As Gill hears these words and travels, literally and figuratively, back to her roots, she realises how deeply “these fields, these villages, these hedgerows, were still inscribed upon her memory; they were the very bedrock of her consciousness”, and she begins to understand the “precious” importance Rosamund places on finding “a sense of your own history; a sense of where you come from, and of the forces that made you” (32). I will not reveal the extent to which Rosamund and Gill are successful in their quest to join hands through time, but as the past comes alive to the three modern women, they become “half-removed from [their] surroundings”; the present seems “ghostly, unfamiliar” (148) as more important matters than trivial domestics emerge. They realise the urgent need to trace these “shadows of the past” (148) and to try to define these “unexpected patterns” (205) in order to be reconnected to each other, to the world, to their home, to the meaning of life. Listening to Rosamund’s healing words gives Gill the hope, at least, that things might come together, and that the “formlessness of jumbled buildings, trees, skyline” might develop into “gradations of colour”, with once defined, rigid outlines “blurred” (12) peacefully into one.

The London skyline - an example of the jumbled buildings Gill finds it hard to accept.

The London skyline – an example of the jumbled buildings Gill finds it hard to accept.

Reading this novel was a truly cathartic experience. Coe seems to involve his readers in the narrative as though they are characters themselves. I found the relationship between photography and memory fascinating and moving and I loved the rendering of audiotape onto page – both original and believable. I was blown away by Coe’s style and simple, yet intense, descriptive technique. I can’t wait to read another of his; I’ve certainly got plenty on my wish list now that this one has earned 5/5 stars.

Next week I’ll be reading The Woman Who Went to Bed For A Year. No, it’s not about me; it’s by Sue Townsend. Stay tuned!

COE, Jonathan. The Rain Before It Falls. London: Penguin, 2008.

Featured Image: “Caravan Holiday With Gran”, found by TinTrunk.

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/trevira/sets/234170/

Music from: https://archive.org/details/CanteloubeSongsOfTheAuvergne