It is summer, 1959, and Jack Robbins is the charming compare at an ‘end of the pier’ show on Brighton seafront. Also on the bill – and grabbing much of the acclaim – are stage magician Ronnie Deane and his lovely assistant Evie White, performing as Pablo and Eve. We journey back through the three lives of the characters, seeing their humble beginnings as they endure the Second World War and the impact it has on their families. This is a love triangle like no other. Evie’s memories of that fateful summer are painful and filled with some regret, but we reflect on her life and a pivotal event that occurred on the final night of that summer season.
Graham Swift has been on my radar for a year or two. I have copies of Waterland, Out of This World and The Light of Day somewhere around, purchased on a whim. I was aware of the film version of one of his novels – Last Orders – although I’ve never seen it, but the subject matter of Here We Are appealed to me as much as the author’s reputation. I’m pleased to say that my reading of this very short novel (almost a novella) has given me a strong desire to search out his other work.
Swift won the Booker Prize for Last Orders so I was expecting something rather literary and flowery or staid. However the writing style is quite the opposite, it’s beautifully understated and unpretentious. There’s an element of the prose that seems deliberately ambiguous, but in the context of the novel’s themes – magic and memory and misdirection – it works perfectly. The three central characters – Ronnie in particular – are fleshed out enough so you really care for them. The scenes where Ronnie is evacuated out of London to stay with a family in the Oxfordshire countryside are especially good, given the impact this ‘new family’ has in the shaping of his adult life. The depiction of life in the variety industry also has a real ring of authenticity. But it’s a wonderful sleight of hand that the book pulls about a quarter of the way through that really drives the story – as we leap forward to 2009 to see one of the characters as they are now, in their mid 70s. This sense of memory and emotional complexity really does add layers to the story and brings into question our perception of what actually happened. It’s tinged with sadness but also hints at much more beyond. It feels very British. I really wish it were longer – I would have enjoyed spending time with these characters, even if the novel were four times its length – but maybe its brevity is what makes it feel so magical.
Needless to say I am now keen to read anything else by Graham Swift. This is a novel I can recommend without hesitation.