It is August 1959 in the English seaside resort of Brighton. In the theater at the end of the famous pier, a man waits in the wings to walk onstage and wow his audience. He is Jack, who, at 28, is already a veteran of the variety-show circuit, “an old-song-and-dance man.” However, this summer he is eclipsed by Ronnie, a magician, and Evie, his glamorous assistant — and fiancée — who entrance fresh crowds every night. Jack looks on admiringly, not at the tricks but at Evie.
The beginning of Graham Swift’s new novel, “Here We Are,” leads the reader to believe that this will be Jack’s story, one that probably encompasses professional rivalry, faded glory, and sexual jealousy. In fact, it is Ronnie’s tale. With a conjurer’s legerdemain, Swift slides Jack into the shadows and pushes Ronnie into the spotlight. The drama that unfolds is a powerful study of fame, identity and lost love.
Swift charts Ronnie’s hardscrabble upbringing in London’s East End, then his change of fortune in 1939. At the age of 8 he becomes an evacuee, leaving behind the Blitz for the safety, and luxury, of a grand home in Oxfordshire. While there, he learns what Jack later mischievously calls his “sorcerer’s apprenticeship.” After the war, Ronnie returns to the capital, adopts the stage name the Great Pablo, and tries to eke out a living in the “rough, glittery, hopeful, deluded, stage-struck, thankless, magical business.” His luck is transformed again when he meets chorus girl Evie. It isn’t long before a professional relationship blossoms into a romantic one.
That is until Jack makes his move while Ronnie’s back is turned. Swift, always a master at shuttling between time frames, fast-forwards to 2009 to show Evie, now a 75-year-old widow in a house “full of goneness,” reflecting on her affair with Jack and her subsequent marriage. But what happened to Ronnie?
“Here We Are” centers upon a key question posed by Ronnie: “How could you have had one life and then simply exchange it for another?” This is a novel about reinvention as a means of self-preservation. The three main characters slough off old personas, then slip into new ones. It isn’t always a seamless transition, as people get hurt in the process. This contributes to the profound sense of melancholy that imbues the proceedings and is most keenly felt through the pervading air of wistful evanescence. It manifested itself in Swift’s 2016 Booker Prize-winner “Last Orders” and his last novel “Mothering Sunday” in the form of passing eras and dwindling friends. Here there is a further sense of dying days and waning light, and it leaves a lasting impression.
There is much to appreciate, from the evocation of Ronnie’s childhood to the “ballet of silent intersecting actions” that is his magic routine. Swift has also worked his magic to produce a novel fueled by, and consequently alive with, creative brilliance and emotional intensity.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Here We Are
By: Graham Swift.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 208 pages, $22.95.