Swift brings his old lyricism to a new landscape. A particularly fine passage evokes Evie’s postcoital moments, on a cold November afternoon, with Ronnie at his “grubby little flat”, stroking the hairs on his chest that have “a pleasing roughness-yet-silkiness” catching the light from the “electric fire, a Belling portable positioned not far away on the floor with its bars blazing… Now and then it clicked and twanged.” This is, in both senses of the word, sensuous writing: images, sounds, smells and textures working together to conjure up Brighton in 1959, a world before television soaps and central heating.
Here We Are is a delight, all the characters and the settings thoroughly imagined and therefore inhabited. The description of the Great Pablo’s last astonishing illusion is masterly; you can sense the audience holding their breath and caught between astonishment and belief. He writes about the gaps between people and the attempts, sometimes vain attempts, to bridge them. He writes always with sympathy and understanding, and his ability to capture the fleeting moment is remarkable. He writes also about guilt and how we contrive to live with it and so often excuse ourselves. There is never anything flashy about Swift’s novels, but they are deeply satisfying. They are novels you want to read a second time to get more from them.
Swift’s method is to set down ordinary things so as to suggest something more. His style, following his characters, is casual and colloquial, as he smoothly propels the action. As well as being an old-fashioned story told in an old-fashioned style, Here We Are has an emotional reticence, a reluctance to stir the reader’s feelings too far beyond the rueful tears of a survivor. The dramas of 1959 are safely in the past, carefully selected and blurred by memory. The theme of lonely childhoods and the possibilities of adult love give the novel its benign purpose and melancholy charm.
The biggest changes in the book are hidden. The story jumps from 1959 to 2009, and there’s some pleasant mental exercise to be had in working out what happened in between. But it’s firmly backward-looking, and most of the book feels not just set in the 1950s but as though it were written then too: there’s no sense that this is a new perspective on the past. It’s comforting and cosy, which are by no means futile attributes in a book, but it does make the effort of reading it feel mildly inconsequential. It’s a bit sad, a bit funny, a bit interesting — but only a bit.
With its focus on the marginalised suburban underbelly of England, the novel might have been written by William Trevor (I can offer no higher praise), while in Jack, Swift conjures the ghost of John Osborne’s showman Archie Rice in The Entertainer, which used music hall to talk about the state of the nation. That metaphor is echoed here, as Swift asks us to read the postwar story of the country as a kind of trick, now fading: only a memory being relived, the same old act watched on TV, no longer seen live at the end of the pier.... I don’t know quite how Swift does it – the book is light, perhaps slight, and the story is all told at one or two removes so that it reads as though it’s happening in the next room. And yet it’s a magical piece of writing: the work of a novelist on scintillating form.
When writing about characters from the outside, Swift has in the past sometimes allowed his own fluency to intrude, as though unable or unwilling to ignore a good line when it occurs to him. In Wish You Were Here (2011), you felt at times that he was so frustrated by the inarticulacy of Jack, the novel’s central character, that he felt he had to constantly chime in from the back seat.Despite its subject, there’s nothing extravagant or showy about Here We Are. “Illusions,” says Ronnie, once he’s mastered his magician’s craft, “should always be done in good clear light, otherwise people might suspect it was all just — trickery.” The book’s power comes precisely from the fact that it performs its magic in front of your eyes, leaving nowhere to hide. Barely noticing the mechanism, you wonder how he does it.
What still makes Here We Are a haunting read is the way its grin-and-greasepaint milieu takes on wider significance. Around its flamboyant trio of troupers, more sombre kinds of illusion, deception and vanishing acts are brought into view. Under the chirpy vivacity at the end of the pier lurk chilly depths. With a wizardry of his own, Swift conjures up an about-to-disappear little world and turns it into something of wider resonance.
That’s all there is to the plot, but that’s not to say the novel is in any way lacking. Swift’s prose is restrained but emotionally charged. The story is often in the conditional: even Ronnie’s time in Oxfordshire is bracketed by a big “if” – he might never have been a magician, he might never have been so loved, “if it wasn’t for a war”. The sunny catchphrase of Ronnie’s surrogate mother (“Here we are! How happy. And true.”) becomes ever more melancholic, eventually denoting absence more than presence. Images of ephemerality dominate: a rainbow, the sea and the show itself, “a flickering summer concoction at the end of a pier”.
At times Swift seems to be channelling a stage compere filling time before the main act arrives — but the voice is too inconsistent for this to work. He moves between a simple, honest idiom reflective of the postwar, British working class (“any chorus girl worth her salt . . .”) and ornate words such as “uxorious” and “entombed”. It feels dashed off. Rereading a construction like “the hellish stage in its history the world was now reaching” surely should have prompted a rephrase. But I’m not sure any amount of tinkering would have rescued this pale, watery novel.