Review: Here We Are by Graham Swift

This book won the Booker Prize in 1996.

‘Here We Are’ is short (195 pages in medium font size) and gentle. The setting is Brighton and the summer of 1959, immediately before the whirlwind that was the 1960s blew in and ‘modern life’ begun.

Magician Ronnie and his assistant Evie are performing in variety on Brighton Pier. The show’s compere is Jack (actually ‘Jack Robbins’, but calling himself, for the season, ‘Jack Robinson, as in “before you can say”). The storyline is simple – the Eternal Triangle, of two men and one woman.

The author brings the reader into what I’m sure is a very accurately described world of immediately post-war England, a staid and stable place without rock-and-roll or television, where people were still recovering from the Second World War. It’s an England of seaside holidays, Belling electric bar ‘fires’ and theatricals in ‘lodgings’. We are also taken further back, to Ronnie’s evacuation from his straightened and cramped existence in the East End, to stay for the duration with Eric and Penelope Lawrence at wonderful, comfortable Evergrene in Oxfordshire. He didn’t want to go back home to Bethnel Green, obviously. Swift understands the people he is writing about, the unsentimental attitudes of the working classes and the conscientiousness of the middle classes. ‘Here we are,’ was what Penelope Lawrence said when she brought Ronnie ginger beer, but this phrase encapsulates the tone and content of the novel.

The story does not follow a sequential timeline, but dibs and dobs around from year to year, very effectively, without losing the main thread. I’m not giving away any spoilers (because this is mentioned early in the book) when I tell you that Ronnie performed his ultimate magic trick at the end of the season in September 1959 by disappearing. Completely. Never to be seen again.

A skillfully and competently written treatment of an old plot, with well-depicted characters.

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