There’s something — isn’t there? — of the literary also-ran about Graham Swift. He was on Granta’s first, influential Best of Young British Novelists list in 1983, and he won the Booker Prize in 1996, but he has never attained the public-face
status of his contemporaries. That may not be so surprising, given who those publicity-hoovering contemporaries are, Amis, Barnes, McEwan and Rushdie among them. Once in a while, one of his books rises a little higher in the sky — 1983’s Waterland, 1996’s Last Orders, 2018’s Mothering Sunday — but will Here We Are be one of them?
The title gives a clue to what sort of book this is. It’s something a secondary character says when delivering drinks or proffering something: ‘Here we are!’ It’s a ‘bright and strangely echoing phrase’, a welcome which is simultaneously a piece of empty conversational filler, of no nutritional value. Above all, it speaks of a particular aspect of England, an England of ginger beer, cold frames, magicians in top hats and people called Ronnie, Eric, Agnes and Sid — all of which feature in Here We Are.
The magician is Ronnie Deane — stage name Pablo, after a parrot he had as a childhood pet — and the book covers his relationship with his wife and assistant Evie, and their mutual friend Jack Robinson, who often acts as compère for Ronnie and Evie’s end-of-the-pier magic show in Brighton. ‘Please join me, folks, boys and girls, in drinking to Ronnie’s other half. Or should I say halves? May he always keep putting her back together again.’
A triangle of characters provides a sturdy, reliable structure for a novel, and there are some foreseeable developments coming from that; but the book is more interesting on the subject of change. As a child during the second world war, Ronnie was evacuated to Oxfordshire, and it was while living there that he learned how to perform illusions; he returned to his parents, aged 14, changed by those developmental years. All three main characters have changed their names: Evie to Eve when she’s on stage with Ronnie, and Jack from Robbins to the more archetypal Robinson when he dons his ‘black-and-white get-up that was the outdated rig of showmen, conmen, masqueraders everywhere’.
The biggest changes in the book are hidden. The story jumps from 1959 to 2009, and there’s some pleasant mental exercise to be had in working out what happened in between. But it’s firmly backward-looking, and most of the book feels not just set in the 1950s but as though it were written then too: there’s no sense that this is a new perspective on the past. It’s comforting and cosy, which are by no means futile attributes in a book, but it does make the effort of reading it feel mildly inconsequential. It’s a bit sad, a bit funny, a bit interesting — but only a bit. Swift does show admirable boldness in his refusal to provide a neat ending, but for a story about magic and showbiz, it’s weirdly lacking in pizzazz.