Book Review: Here We Are by Graham Swift
While Here We Are considers what it is to exist – transforming from boy to man; from childless to parents; from stage girl to aged wife – it is so much more a series of magical vanishing acts. Aged eight, Ronnie Dean is evacuated during the London blitz, his father is lost at sea, and the boy returns to Bethnal Green to find he no longer recognises what was once his home.
Years later (1959), the three main characters of the book – Ronnie (now a brilliant young magician called Pablo), his assistant-cum-fiancée Evie, and his best friend Jack – come together for the summer season at the end of Brighton pier. The theatrical season passes by in a flash and Evie suddenly ceases to be Ronnie's fiancée in a sleight-of-hand move by Jack. Even Ronnie’s mother vanishes – “His mother was dead, gone, no longer there… And there she was. And wasn’t”. But it is the show’s grand finale where Ronnie surprises everyone by making himself disappear for good. “But life is unfair, you do or you don’t have your moment, and if the show must come to an end, then there’s always the sound theatrical argument: save the best till last.”
Told from a third person perspective, Swift skilfully navigates the timelines of WWII, the fifties and the present day to portray the ebbs and flows of the twentieth century for ordinary folk: how luck, fate or innovation can take from one individual and present fortune to another as quick as waving a magic wand. The author subtly builds up tension throughout the book: we know to expect one final grand act of magic, but we must continue reading to find out what. When the finale does finally arrive, it brings together Ronnie’s character arc (from poor London boy to The Great Pablo), the theme (take what you can), and the core of the story (it’s all just an illusion).
If you like twentieth century historical fiction, literary fiction or some of Swift’s previous novels (Mothering Sunday, Last Orders), then you will enjoy Here We Are. Swift delivers tight yet elegant prose and fans of Kazuo Ishiguro or Julian Barnes will also enjoy reading this book.
Just like a magician at the top of his game, the author brilliantly lures the audience into thinking the story is about Evie and Jack. But no– this is Ronnie’s story. This is about a boy who took what chances he had and was determined to steer his own destiny, no matter other forces at play. Right until the end, when Evie is an old woman, alone and in her bedroom, Ronnie remains at the heart of the of the matter: “Hello, Evie. It’s been a while. Here I am. Here we are.”