The narrative commences with one of the triumvirate, a 21-year-old graduate, being flown in a merchant banker's private plane for a short season of tutoring his teenage son, Pip, on Sark.
Rankin-Gee invests her characters with ambiguity from the start, and the book opens on a gentle Shakespearean gender mix-up which will shade the whole story with paradoxical quirks: "My name is Jude. And because of Law, Hey and the Obscure, they thought I was a boy. Not even a boy. A young man …," says the female tutor in her opening lines.
Jude's reluctant charge is Pip, a nervous, fantastically bright 16-year-old who won't meet her eye. His, father Eddy is a florid public-school bore; and French mother Esmé is rarely glimpsed, silently inhabiting the upper reaches of the house like an elusive, birdlike, Miss Havisham or Bertha Rochester. Eddy and Esmé are only children who have produced an only child; this coincidence includes Jude, and the other person who will make up a fiercely intense trio with her and Pip: Sofi, the hired cook. "Polish," states Eddy dismissively. "Ealing," insists Sofi.
Sofi is the focal point, their unacknowledged leader – "after her stories, ours seemed drawn in the dimmest pencil" – despite her lower status in the pecking order of the household. As staff, she and Jude live out, sharing a basic twin-bedded room in a forlorn establishment that barely passes muster as a hotel. Sofi's frankness, adroit malapropisms and filthy epithets make Jude, the elder by two years, feel immature and awkward, as do the younger woman's unabashed sexuality and boldness: "dirty blonde, dirty tan, denim-blue eyes". The first night Sofi undresses like an unspoken challenge: "She whipped off her top mid-sentence and sat on the edge of the bed, legs open, in a black lace bra."
Rankin-Gee lavishes as much attention on her descriptions of Sark as she does on the golden protegonists. It's an intriguing setting for a novel, this tiny island, rising "out of the sea like a souffle" – the last feudal state in Europe, just two square miles in area, with a population of around 600, where cars are banned and the content of meals depends on what erratically delivered supplies appear in the local store.
The recently-departed feudalism is less than subtly present in Eddy's domain; sharp-witted Sofi's initial disdain for Jude is due to the fact that "I [Jude] was wearing a suit and using the voice I saved for my parents' friends." Sofi uses bravado to cover her lack of formal education, but Jude is something of a fraudulent tutor who doesn't know her Borges from her Hemingway. When Eddy leaves for a business trip, the summer slides into recklessness. Lessons are abandoned, scallop trawled for illegally with Czech casual workers, rosé drunk at noon and rickety bike rides taken in the dark, with Jude always following Sofi's "red bindi" of a backlight. The idyll and the close-knit relationship of the three ends explosively, but also with extreme tenderness, an unforgettable finale to those sun-drenched, prelapsarian weeks – at once spiritual, physical and emotional; a moment never to be recaptured….
Personally, I feel Rankin-Gee should have left the narrative there – a frozen moment in time, unsullied by the future á la John Fowles’ The Magus.
Instead, the novel's extended coda shows Sofi, Pip and Jude at separate moments of their lives two, five and many years later. Sark dwindles or enlarges by turn to become a symbol of rueful remembrance, as the story resumes in a rough Normandy bar, the heart of Paris and, later, in England. Reality shows its inevitable face in random deaths and alliances.
This section seems tacked on, reading almost like an unfinished treatment for an unnecessary sequel… and even the language becomes jarring. Lyrical descriptions of inner awakenings and the outer beauty of Sark, give way to dead-end plotlines and frankly unlikable characters spouting awkward dialogue…
“What are you thinking?”
“Anything, everything, I don’t know”
“I don’t know either. What are you thinking?”
“I don’t know”
Sorry, that’s just irritating. If the author was trying to depict how the past can never be recaptured and life must inevitably move forward, fair enough: I just wish she hadn’t done it in such an anticlimactic way… Still, a very entertaining and at times poignant read, only dropping to 3 stars from 4 for the final 100-page slog.
As I mentioned in my last blog post/Guernsey review, the book selected for the neighbouring Bailiwick of Jersey was still winging its way around the globe to my home in Australia from my native UK (quite appropriate for a book whose main character is an angel!).
I am pleased to say that this has now arrived and am grateful to Matt Fiott, Executive Director of Arts Jersey, whose organisation not only demonstrated that Jersey has a thriving contemporary arts scene, but also kindly responded to my query by suggesting a modern day novel set predominantly in Jersey that sounds fascinating (What I Tell You In The Dark by John Samuel).
So, it's back to the sea...sadly the handy Sark to Jersey "Manche Iles Express" ferry only runs in summer - whilst only 20 pounds and 1 hour 10 minutes, I am not minded to wait until April to leave, so it's back on the Sark Shipping Company ferry to Guernsey, a 45 minute trip.Condor Ferries go to Jersey's St Helier port hourly, so I have chance for a pleasant lunch before boarding the 'Condor Liberation' ferry for A$54 arriving at my next destination an hour later (be aware - the 'Condor Clipper' ferry takes an hour longer at the same price).