Still fresh from the success of Mothering Sunday – which seemed to restore Graham Swift’s position as pedigree English novelist after a few years in the seeming relative wilderness – we have Here We Are, a sadly-sweet and charming tale of light entertainment and betrayal set in Brighton in 1956.
There is Jack, compere, song and dance man, fleet of foot, fan of the Floras (a veritable bevy of interchangeable beauties who never stick around for long), canny enough to realise that pier-side entertainment is rapidly becoming a thing of yesteryear (thanks to that terrible living room box casting its shadow over the hearts and hearthsides of his fellow countrymen and women); and there is Ronnie, his old army buddy, a magician who was first bit by the bug when he was evacuated during the war. After Jack offers Ronnie a leg up into his summer review, Ronnie auditions for an assistant and we meet Evie – Evie who becomes Eve upon the stage, Ronnie becoming Pablo – first Pablo and then The Great Pablo – Pablo and Eve. Before long Ronnie and Evie are not just magician and assistant, they are engaged, set to wed at the end of the season. But we know, don’t we, that Jack – cocky Jack, confident Jack, song and dance man Jack – has plans too, an agenda, that comes from standing at the back, watching the magic show, watching the tricks. We know it’s not going to end well for everyone.
If you’ve dabbled with Swift before you know that he circles his prey, using detail to nag like a worry at his plot, and so it can sometimes feel like you knew everything that was going to happen all along, even though you learn as you go. He’s canny, careful, subtle and shrewd. There’s mention of an investigation early on so we know that something goes amiss. One of the great pleasures of Here We Are, though, is that – despite the fact that there are no real revelations (by the time you learn what you need to learn, you’ve already learned what you need to learn, or at least it feels that way) – there are mesmerising convolutions, switches of feeling, long held secrets never revealed to anyone but the reader. The character of Evie – which might be nothing more than a cypher in a lesser writer’s hands – comes to burn brighter than either of the men in her life (or at least outlive them, although even that we aren’t a hundred percent certain of). And there is magic, of course – illusions – that serve to connect the dark misery of a young magician’s youth to the greater miseries of his adult life.
Any Cop?: All told, we began Here We Are expecting to like it – and we liked it more than we expected to. If you read Graham Swift many years ago (Waterland, Last Orders) but haven’t dabbled for a bit, we recommend you jump back in. At just shy of 200 pages, Here We Are is the kind of book you can get from one side to the other of within a couple of days, and we think you would regard it as two days well spent.