In writing about Graham Swift before I have referenced the first Granta Best Young British Novelist feature, which was where I discovered him. His piece there was an extract from his novel, Waterland, which I thought was one of the very best pieces in that magazine. Of course I read the novel, of course I was blown away by it. Since then, my only complaint about Swift (who remains one of my favourite novelists) has been that he has never again written anything like Waterland. But I’m beginning to realise that, of course, he has, that every novel owes a structural debt to Waterland.
That is something that is obvious in his wonderful new novel, Here We Are, even if, on the surface, there is no comparison whatsoever. In Waterland story and history intertwine, chronology is disrupted, and landscape plays a formative part in everything the novel does. In Here We Are story and history intertwine, though on a very different scale; chronology is disrupted, we are being told this story in 2009, 1959 and 1940, without it always being apparent which year we are viewing the narration from; and again landscape is formative, though in this case the landscape is restricted to a pier in Brighton and a middle class house in Oxford.
One of the things I find distinctive about Swift’s writing is how he makes the end of the story obvious right at the beginning; there can be no surprise in the story, and yet somehow there is. It’s a technique that requires great skill in the construction of the story, the ability to give out candid revelations and yet still hold something back without ever seeming to do so. It is something you don’t come across very often, and never as consistently and as skilfully done as Swift manages.
We know that in the summer season at the end of the pier in Brighton the Great Pablo and Eve (actually Ronnie and Evie) are the hit of the show, rising inexorably to top the bill. We know that Ronnie and Evie are engaged to be married the moment the season ends in September, but for some reason that marriage will never happen. There is a tragedy, a mystery, and Ronnie is never seen again. The compere of that show, the person who secured that slot on the bill for Ronnie, is his old army buddy, Jack Robinson, though he will go on to become a famous actor under his real name, Jack Robbins, even if he never quite gets the knighthood that has so often been promised. And we know that, 50 years after the event, Evie will look back on that time in Brighton and recall her 49-year marriage to Jack, whose career she managed and guided to its success.
That’s a lot to tell us in the early pages of quite a short novel. With all that information, surely we know how it’s going to turn out, surely we can guess the secrets that are being hidden in plain sight?
Except that Ronnie is a talented stage magician. We see him evacuated from Bethnal Green at the start of the Second World War, and placed with an elderly childless couple on the outskirts of Oxford. Here, Ronnie has the happy childhood he never had at home. And the surrogate father is a one-time magician who teaches him the tricks of the trade. After the war he must perforce return to his widowed mother who has no sympathy with his dreams of going on the stage. But during his national service he meets Jack Robbins, another stage-struck youngster who is already starting to make a name for himself as a comedian. When Jack Robinson, as he now styles himself, gets to head up the show on Brighton pier for the summer season 1959, he tells Ronnie he can get him a spot on the bill if Ronnie can recruit a pretty assistant. He recruits out-of-work chorine Evie. The two hit it off, both on stage and off; they become engaged and their act is the hit of the show. All of which is told with a nostalgic glow, except for the hint of something tragic in the offing.
And remember, Ronnie is a talented magician, and magicians never reveal the secret of their act. Evie allows herself to be seduced by Jack. Does Ronnie know? Evie is sure he does, but all Ronnie wants to talk about is a new climax for their routine. It is spectacular, and on the final performance of the last night of the season, it builds to … well, something that isn’t quite what we expected. But we don’t exactly know what it is: Swift does not reveal his secrets, the mystery remains unresolved.
Magic is a business that involves misdirection. So is novel writing, and Graham Swift is a quiet, understated master of the trade. He shows us everything, and yet none of it is quite what we think.