Image Credit: Simon & Schuster Ltd, 2020
Of that generation of British novelists who first came to public attention in the early eighties – that loose coterie which counted Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie amongst its (invariably male) members – the career of Graham Swift has perhaps been the hardest to predict.
His most celebrated novels demonstrate a stylistic diversity that can appear difficult to reconcile with the rest of his output: the macabre fen-country tale Waterland, the Faulknerian ventriloquisms of Last Orders, and the gorgeous country house romance Mothering Sunday, are almost nothing alike, and are themselves far removed from the quiet domesticities which are the preoccupation of much of his less memorable fiction.
Four decades into his career, this can make him an inconsistent and frustrating writer, even if he remains capable of the occasional feat of novelistic near-perfection. His last novel, 2016’s Mothering Sunday, was just such a feat: a short, intoxicating study of memory and sexuality that read like a superior rewrite of the first part of McEwan’s Atonement.
His new book, Here We Are, promised similar pleasures – another period novella (this time set in 1959), an end-of-the-pier romance rich in love and loss and regret, played out in the same kind of late-summer haze that made the world of Mothering Sunday so alluring. What we get instead, however, is a curiously bloodless, ersatz version of the previous work. This is a novel seeming so slight as almost to taper into non-existence, and one comprehensively lacking in the magic of its predecessor.
The story concerns three young people: Ronnie Deane, an up-and-coming magician; Jack Robinson, the compere of Ronnie’s show; and Evie White, Ronnie’s assistant, and object of both men’s affections. In the summer of 1959, the three are playing Brighton pier every night – the biggest show of their lives. There is obvious dramatic potential in the set-up: the plot is, at heart, a very simple love triangle. But the narrative seems strangely coy in its treatment of the actual events that comprise it.
Like Mothering Sunday before it, this book is interested in the weight and impact that a single moment can have on an entire life, and, like Mothering Sunday, the timescale of the novel spans the entire lives of the three participants in that moment – we can see both the tensions that informed it, and the lifelong consequences that ripple out from it.
In the previous novel, however, this panoramic view was anchored by the very concrete evocation of the event itself. In Here We Are, the central event is only ever approached obliquely, via sidelong glance or incomplete recollection. The writing is stuffed with rhetorical questions, subjunctives, and sudden shifts in perspective, all of which contribute to the sense that the events of the narrative are being held at arm’s length from us. When the fog does eventually clear, however, it is more with a shrug than a flourish, and it is difficult not to wonder why it was worth keeping from us in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, the strongest parts of the novel are those in which the action is most linear and solid. The passages following Ronnie’s upbringing during the Second World War, during which he is evacuated from his London home to stay with a kindly couple in the country, one of whom sparks his lifelong passion for magic, are evocative and tender, and demonstrate the groundwork of an intelligent character study. But as soon as Jack and Evie are introduced, the focus is instantly diffused.
The three are clearly envisioned as being co-protagonists but, despite the constantly shifting focalisation, the novel’s attention to each is wildly uneven, and Jack particularly remains an enigma. The idiomatic language, with its fondness for cliché and repetition, seems half-baked: less committed than in the Booker-winning Last Orders, but too prevalent to allow for much in the way of genuinely probing emotional intelligence, it serves only to occlude.
The vivid descriptions, the ‘gauzy green-gold’ hues of Mothering Sunday are also absent. All of this might be entirely forgivable, of course, were the central narrative especially compelling. But this is such a turgid, lifeless plot – it has little to say, and it doesn’t say it particularly well. If you were being kind, you might suggest that it would maybe have done better as a short story; but, frankly, there’s barely enough meat here even for that.
I remain a fan of Graham Swift: he has done enough, at this point, to earn my permanent respect and affection. But Here We Are is symptomatic of a larger problem in the publishing industry, which is the inevitable focus on brand over quality. This book would never have been picked up if it was written by a debut novelist, and it is disappointing to see talented writers trading on their reputation to sell substandard work. Swift is not alone in this, of course: Julian Barnes, of his contemporaries, seems most in danger of following a similar late-career trajectory into dull, indulgent domestic tales that purport to uncover profound truths about the human condition (The Sense of an Ending was forgivable, The Only Story was not).
These books are the very definition of pale, male and stale, and each one is taking up the place of a new, original, compelling voice. We, the reading public, can and should expect more from our great novelists. For now, though, we have Here We Are: Swift on autopilot, and the most disappointing book I have read all year.