Here We Are

Graham Swift

Scribner, £14.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

There are countless books that tell you how to write, most of them worse than useless. Then there are novels about novelists or writers. While some are brilliant – Philip Roth’s The Ghostwriter comes to mind – they rarely illuminate the art itself.

Here We Are is not about authorship in any obvious way, yet it is as profound a contemplation of the skills and perspective the novelist’s calling demands as any writer’s manual or memoir. And, as so often with Graham Swift, he comes at his subject obliquely, yet with a sniper’s precision.

The title is prosaic, as we have grown to expect from one of Britain’s finest and most understated writers. In his fondness for everyday turns of phrase Swift shares the deliberately downbeat manner of AL Kennedy, or Ali Smith, signalling from the offset that there are deep currents at work beneath the seemingly ordinary, unremarkable surface.

None of his earlier books, however, whether the tragic Wish You Were Here, or the tragic-comic Last Orders, for which Swift won the Booker Prize, nor even Waterland, which many consider his masterpiece, strays as deeply into the farther realms of the extraordinary as this latest work.

In outline, as in the language in which it is written, Here We Are sounds simple. Like a latterday Simenon, Swift’s style is growing less and less showy, as if restricting himself to the fewest and most commonplace words with which to do the job. A PhD could be written on the meagreness of his vocabulary, and what he can achieve with it. Even when he slips in a lyrical description he does it unobtrusively, as when autumn approaches, “the waves themselves, even in the way they gnawed at the beach, seeming to know something”.

Compared with more attention-grabbing writers, Swift seems to revel in his self-imposed plainness and restraint. His instrument is the triangle rather than the cymbals, his manner more Quaker than evangelist. By sandpapering his sentences so that they slip past the reader effortlessly, what he is saying makes the impact rather than the words themselves.

This does not mean, however, that his characters are in any way self-effacing. In this instance, unlike the protagonists of many of his earlier novels and stories, they are all exhibitionists. The backdrop against which the narrative takes place is the end of the pier theatre in Brighton,1959. The performers tell themselves: “If the stage were to open up we’d all go tumbling through into the water.” It is a metaphor for life itself, and the flimsiness of any situation, no matter how stable or secure it might appear. Beneath all the seaside scenes, fish dart under their feet.

Jack and Ronnie have been mates since army days when they worked alongside each other in a nine-to-five office assignment, with weekends off: “Thanks to the army, [Ronnie’s] life had never been more ordinary”. Back in civvy street, the main concern is their careers. Jack is a comedian and compere, the anchor of a summertime show that pulls in the crowds. Ronnie is a magician who, at his friend’s urging, has found himself an attractive stage assistant. The pair work together so well that their double-act – Pablo and Eve – becomes one of Brighton’s sensations. Both young men are ambitious, although only as the season progresses does the magnitude of Ronnie’s vision become clear.

Events that fateful summer are seen through the eyes of both men and Ronnie’s glitzy assistant, Evie. Half a century later she continues the story, on the anniversary of her famous husband’s death, remembering how they became a couple. Underpinning all of this is the war, a time when Ronnie truly came alive, evoked here with unsentimental charm.

Ronnie was eight when he was wrenched from Bethnal Green, where his charlady mum and frequently absent father, a merchant seaman, lived a hardscrabble, resentful existence. Agnes thinks she is doing the right thing, allowing her beloved boy to be packed off to the country: “She had invested – and for Agnes such a thing was not a trivial purchase – in a new white cotton handkerchief”. This outlay among the army of heartbroken mothers, writes Swift, might have been seen as an “act of propitiatory surrender. Please can we have our children back? But it was too late.”

No wonder that, after the war, when Ronnie eventually confided his dream to become a magician, his mother’s response was harsh: “In her head was the thought: ‘Jesus Christ, it had been bad enough being married to a sailor. “Fucking hell, Ronnie! Magic! Whatever fucking next?’ ”

For Ronnie, evacuation was blissful. Apart from the blackout curtains, and news of his father’s death, he’d never have known there was a war going on. He settles with a middle-aged, middle-class couple, Penelope and Eric, who have no children of their own, and treat him like the son they never had. When Eric reveals his hidden talent as a magician, Ronnie’s imagination takes flight. Soon, as Jack later likes to joke, he became “the sorcerer’s apprentice”. Penelope’s cheerful salutation, "here we are!”, whenever she appears with a tray of victuals, rings through the book. Yet while there are vignettes of real joy and happiness, coupled with Swift’s ever-present and frequently mordant humour, this is a mournful and ultimately chilling story, about how easily people’s attachments, and hearts, are broken.

The pier-end show in Brighton is the crucible of the action, as Ronnie and Evie’s relationship blossoms. Events thereafter take an all too predictable twist, given Jack’s merry-go-round of romances. He is renowned for the ever-changing young women on his arm; rather than remember their names, his friends call them all Flora. But glamorous Evie, in her feathered costume and fish-like sequins, is shrewd and steely. Realising what makes Jack tick, she “found the all-important little key in the small of his back and learnt how, carefully, lovingly, to turn it, when all the others were too busy wrapping their legs around him”.

The mechanics of magic, as Ronnie works on his act, goes far beyond sawing his assistant in half, or conjuring a dove out of a handkerchief. Echoing his mother’s fresh new hanky, waved frantically at Paddington Station as her boy was swept out of sight, Ronnie conceals and conjures out of the air increasingly surprising sights.

In a novel where memory explains all, Swift gives a lesson in sleight of hand, artistic control and the gear-changes involved in the slow and startling reveal. On one level Here We Are is about transformation, whether it’s the illusions magicians create, or the more profound and unsettling alterations of which individuals are capable. As Evie thinks, on the anniversary of Jack’s death, “what’s more extraordinary, that actors turn into these other people – how on earth is it done? – or that people anyway turn into people you never thought they might be?”

But it is also about mothers, their role in shaping their children indelibly. On the opening page we meet Jack – suave, successful yet stage-struck with fear – needing an imaginary push from his mother’s hand to get him in front of the audience. Ronnie, meanwhile, has had two mothers, one whose feelings have been numbed by adversity, the other a generous, sunny spirit.

Here We Are is not a fat novel, but it is a richly rewarding one, every line playing its part. The variety of voices and its historical and emotional reach are so finely entwined, it is as perfect and smooth as an egg. Passages leap out all the time, demanding to be reread, or committed to memory, so that the pace of reading is slowed almost to a crawl. It is perhaps too simple to say that Swift creates a form of fictional magic, but what he can do with a page is out of the ordinary, far beyond most mortals’ ken.