Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 195 pages; 2020.
How can this be my first Graham Swift? He seems to be one of those authors I always mean to read but never get around to — until now.
Here We Are is his latest novel (he has 11 to his name) and what a gorgeous, immersive quintessentially English story it turned out to be!
Theatreland by the sea
Set on the Brighton seafront in 1959, it tells the tale of three entertainers who perform in the regular variety show at the end-of-the-pier theatre during the summer season.
Jack Robinson is the handsome 28-year-old compere and a song-and-dance man. Ronnie Deane, who has “dark Spanish eyes”, is a talented magician and Evie White is his assistant — together they perform under their stage name “Pablo & Eve”.
The tale is less about the trio’s onstage antics, but what happens behind the scenes.
It tells the back story of Ronnie, a sensitive boy from the East End of London, who was a child evacuee during the Second World War. He went to live with Eric and Penelope Lawrence, a comfortably well off middle-aged couple, in a beautiful house in rural Oxfordshire, and it is here he learns to perform magic tricks — or illusions, as he likes to call them.
Despite missing his mother, a char woman from Bethnal Green, and the seaman father who was barely ever at home, he realises he has been given a chance to escape the poverty of his London life. When he is told his father has gone missing in action — he is “lost at sea” — he feels little to no emotion. And later, after the war is over and he returns to London aged 14, he realises he no longer knows his mother and feels guilty about missing his life with the Lawrences who, to all intents and purposes, have become his “real” family, having raised him for the past five or so years.
Evie and Jack have less complicated childhoods, brought up by mothers we might now describe as “pushy” but who encouraged their children to perform and entertain others, a skill that serves them well as adults.
A breakdown in relations
The narrative is cleverly structured so that the reader discovers relatively early on that the relationship between all three performers has broken down, but we do not know under what circumstances nor when it happened.
Some of the story is told from Evie’s point of view as a 72-year-old widow looking back on her life with Ronnie and Jack, and this provides a counterbalance to the thread about Ronnie’s childhood.
It’s a wonderfully evocative novel, told in a sensitive, gently nuanced style. I loved the way it contrasts the lives of these characters pre- and post-war and how the events of that successful summer season had long-lasting impacts on them all.
It’s a totally absorbing read, what I would call proper old-fashioned storytelling, and there’s a gentleness at work even though it addresses some pretty heavy subjects, including loss, love and betrayal.
Here We Are might have been my first Graham Swift novel, but it certainly won’t be my last.
If you liked this book, you might also like:
‘The Illustionist’ by Jennifer Johnston: A twist on the Bluebeard fairytale, this is a dark brooding novel about a woman who marries a magician and then regrets it.
This is my 16th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local indie store earlier in the year.
13 thoughts on “‘Here We Are’ by Graham Swift”
Thanks. I missed this one somehow. I liked Swift’s The Sweet Shop Owner a lot.
I adored this one – I’d give it five stars – and now I want to read more by him. I will look up the Sweet Shop Owner – the title alone sounds fab!
My first Swift was ‘Tomorrow’ and I thought it was dreadful and avoided him for a few years after that. Then I read Wish You Were Here and completely changed my mind about him – I’ve read a few more since (Mothering Sunday; England and Other Stories; Waterland) with Here We Are being my most recent, and I agree: it’s a lovely book. He seems to always do that thing of alternating between a ‘now’ and an earlier time, drip-feeding you the details, which I sometimes can find contrived but Swift really makes it work.
Thank goodness you gave him another go, then 🙂
Interesting that you’ve identified a structural style to his work…
I have just put Mothering Sunday on hold at the library, so hopefully I’ll get to read it fairly soonish…
I havent read Swift in a long time and I haven’t read this one at all. Sounds really good.
I adored this one, Cathy, perfect fare for a lazy afternoon… I read this in one sitting.
Yes, I’m up for proper old-fashioned story-telling too.
Swift is very good on class, I reckon.
It’s so refreshing to read something written like this and which is not trying to be clever with structure, POV, voice etc.
I know I’d like this, I didn’t realise it was about magicians! I’ve only read Mothering Sunday by him which was excellent, so I’d recommend that one.
I had no interest in reading Mothering Sunday prior to this but now I want to read it, so much so I have put a hold on it at my local library!
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I had a similar epiphany with my first Swift a few years ago
but when I tried this book last year, I ended up writing “I kept hoping that Here We Are would suddenly hit that mark (the mark he hit with me in Mothering Sunday). A couple of times when we went into the backstory of one of the main characters, I thought, ah-ha we’re onto something here, but I never really got the purpose of the story or really engaged with any of the three protagonists. Sad, but true.”
I wonder if it’s his first book that grabs a reader or maybe I just missed the point completely with HWA? I’m still keen to read more though. I have Waterland waiting patiently on my TBR (bought straight after reading MS).
From what I can gather reading up on him, Mothering Sunday is regarded as his masterpiece so it may just be that because you read that first everything else pales by comparison? I really loved Here We Are because I didn’t know where it was going to take me and I live stories set in England pre and post war. There’s something dark and moody about them that really appeals.
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