REVIEW: Here We Are by Graham Swift

In brief: Ronnie, Evie and Jack all worked in the theatre on the pier at Brighton in 1959. It was a life changing summer for them all.

The good: Fascinating story with each character’s history revealed gradually.

The not-so-good: Fairly quick read (although you will want to savour the words).

Why I chose it: That cover! Thank you to Simon & Schuster for the copy.

Year: 2020

Pages: 195 (ARC)

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)

Setting: England

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Of course I’ve heard of Graham Swift, but shamefully this is the first of his books that I’ve read. (I haven’t even read Mothering Sunday, which appears to be universally loved). To use a cliché, it certainly won’t be the last as Here We Are demonstrates a rare ability to transport the reader from their world straight into that of the story. I haven’t been lying in bed or on the couch, but transported to the pier in Brighton one summer in 1959. Here We Are is a relatively short novel, but each word is crafted with care and honed to make the experience as enjoyable as possible. This is the kind of story you will want to read without interruptions to get the most out of it.

For those who like their plot linear and the dots joined, Here We Are may not be the book. It is told in the third person by three characters; Evie, Ronnie and Jack and goes back into each of their histories and for some, into the future beyond that fateful summer in 1959. It is intriguing to set what is essentially a mystery in a summer holiday setting, juxtaposed against fun, freedom and forgetting the real world for a while. For the trio, this is the summer where a lot of big things happen. The narrative sneaks them in, suggesting at first a sense of disquiet that gradually builds to the major mystery. In between this, Swift delves into each of the character’s pasts with varying detail. Ronnie’s past is the most interesting (and also important for the plot) and describes his time sent into the country from London during World War II. The fracturing of his biological family and the increasing closeness with his new family is both painful and beautiful to read. It really made me feel quite close to Ronnie and rather protective of him. However, due to the Swift’s skill in painting the characters, I wasn’t put out when Ronnie suffered a betrayal from the others. I was quite accepting with the whole thing, something that just happens. Or perhaps it was because that was Ronnie’s reaction…

The unexpected element to this novel was the addition of magic and a magician. Ronnie, or Pablo/the Great Pablo, is the quiet character with a passion for magic, having learned during the war. Ronnie is keen to make a go of being a musician (despite his mother’s obvious horror) and on Jack’s suggestion, takes on Evie as his assistant. Eve (her stage name) is the one who is sawn in half or threaded with swords, but she doesn’t know how it’s done. Not really. Even Jack, a seasoned performer and ringmaster of the show, is astounded by what he sees on stage. But like the others, Jack on stage is an illusion and continues the theme throughout his career, often being called to by his most famous character’s name in the street. The narrative also continues the illusion theme, being deliberately dreamy and vague initially before details make the story more vivid. It’s very cleverly done and Graham Swift is a writer whose backlist I simply must catch up on.

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