Premium

Here We Are by Graham Swift: a quietly devastating, magical novel

4
Booker Prize-winner Graham Swift at the 2016 Hay Festival
Booker Prize-winner Graham Swift at the 2016 Hay Festival Credit: Clara Molden

Graham Swift’s last book, Mothering Sunday, set in the quickly vanishing interwar world of big houses with servants, was quite possibly the loveliest book I’ve ever read. In his 11th novel, Here We Are, Swift (who won the Booker Prize in 1996) is in elegiac mode once more – except this time, it’s boardwalk Brighton in the summer of 1959.

At the centre of this slim novel are Jack, Evie and Ronnie, a “lopsided trio” of performers. Jack is the handsome compère, Ronnie a magician, and Evie his leggy, silver-leotarded assistant. At the beginning of the season, Ronnie and Evie are engaged. By the end of it, the trio has skewed the other way and Evie and Jack are a couple.

The narrative flits, sometimes jerkily, through time. It looks back on the performers’ childhoods, especially Ronnie’s enchanted time as an evacuee in Oxfordshire, when he learnt magic. Then, it’s 2009, and a 75-year-old widowed Evie wonders what might have been if she’d stayed with Ronnie.

That’s all there is to the plot, but that’s not to say the novel is in any way lacking. Swift’s prose is restrained but emotionally charged. The story is often in the conditional: even Ronnie’s time in Oxfordshire is bracketed by a big “if” – he might never have been a magician, he might never have been so loved, “if it wasn’t for a war”. The sunny catchphrase of Ronnie’s surrogate mother (“Here we are! How happy. And true.”) becomes ever more melancholic, eventually denoting absence more than presence.

Images of ephemerality dominate: a rainbow, the sea and the show itself, “a flickering summer concoction at the end of a pier”. Jack says, “Don’t you think, Evie, that all this stuff, the pier, the show, the whole bag of tricks, it’s had its day?” For all the brightness of Swift’s writing, there’s a quiet devastation at the heart of the book. In Mothering Sunday, the end of an era marked the beginning of a life, in Here We Are, it’s only an ending.

Here We Are is published by Scribner at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop