Book review: Here We Are, by Graham Swift

Graham Swift shows his mastery with a beautiful novel about loss, regret and a magical summer in 1950s Brighton

Graham Swift PIC: Steve Black/Shutterstock

Here We Are takes us back six decades to Brighton, 1959, and an end of the pier show where Jack Robinson, real name Robbins, is the compere, Ronnie Deane, stage name “The Great Pablo,” is the brilliant young illusionist and his fiancée Evie the girl he saws in half. They are a threesome, for Jack and Ronnie are old friends and Jack got them this job, but Evie will, we discover very early on, be Jack’s wife for 50 years while Ronnie will have vanished the way illusionists make things vanish.

Ronnie, we learn, was evacuated from Bethnal Green during the Second World War, and went to live with a nice elderly couple in a nice house in Oxfordshire, where the husband introduced him to stage magic. The England of post-war Austerity meant National Service for Ronnie and Jack but this world of end-of-the-pier shows and draught Bass and the Brighton Belle is long gone, surviving here only in the memory of 75-year-old Evie, a year after Jack’s death. The novel is suffused with nostalgia, both sweet and sour.

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Graham Swift has always been a novelist with the lightest of touches. A lesser writer would have stretched this novel’s material out to 500 pages, smothering it in superfluous detail. Swift can give you the loneliness of childhood in couple of paragraphs or catch the uncertainty that lurks beneath Jack’s stage-manner jauntiness in a sentence. This means he demands careful reading. You might so easily miss the significant line.

Much of the story is filtered through Evie’s memory and reflections 50 years on. She knows how things went wrong, but she is still puzzled by Ronnie. Did she ever really know him? Did Jack? Was that Brighton summer itself only an illusion?

We are not, however, entirely restricted to her memories, her point of view, and Swift isn’t chained to the Creative Writing School dictum: show, don’t tell. Certainly he shows, in brilliant passages of illumination, but he never forgets that a novel is a narrative, and a narrative is something told. He moves between the two modes, showing and telling – with the assurance of the master of this sort of evocative fiction,William Trevor. “The real art,” he once said, “is to make ordinary simple words do extraordinary things,” and, one might add, to take apparently ordinary people and situations and make them extraordinary.

Swift’s first short stories caught the attention of the best literary editor of the time, Alan Ross, who published them in The London Magazine. To be published by Ross gave any young or aspiring writer confidence; it was proof that you could do it. Swift has been doing it ever since. He has never been prolific; one has the impression that he lays down the material for novels and lets it mature like good wine. There are only a dozen or so in 40 years of novel-writing. He may still be best known for Waterland which came out in 1983 or Last Orders, which won the Booker Prize in 1996, but everything he has written has been good, everything has been distinctive.

Here We Are is a delight, all the characters and the settings thoroughly imagined and therefore inhabited. The description of the Great Pablo’s last astonishing illusion is masterly; you can sense the audience holding their breath and caught between astonishment and belief. He writes about the gaps between people and the attempts, sometimes vain attempts, to bridge them. He writes always with sympathy and understanding, and his ability to capture the fleeting moment is remarkable. He writes also about guilt and how we contrive to live with it and so often excuse ourselves. There is never anything flashy about Swift’s novels, but they are deeply satisfying. They are novels you want to read a second time to get more from them.

Here We Are, by Graham Swift, Scribner, 195pp, £14.99