In Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, Mr Scogan bemoans the typical first novel for being ‘about things that are so entirely uninteresting as the mentality of adolescents and artists’. Ninety years later, Rosa Rankin-Gee’s first novel, The Last Kings of Sark, is certainly about such things; but Huxley, she, and we, all know that many good novels are written exclusively about things as utterly devoid of interest as ‘spiritual troubles’, ‘mental processes’, even ‘pure aesthetics’; in short, growing up.
Jude, our protagonist, has, as Mr Scogan would’ve predicted, been to a good university, St Andrews, and, post-graduation, takes a summer job as a tutor on Sark. Jude is a girl and has doubts about her name: ‘because of Law, Hey and the Obscure, they thought I was a boy.’ This opening is a rather redundant method of putting aside any doubts we might have about the narrator’s sex but it’s as striking a line as any. (A much later chapter is highly capable of making the reader look foolish when it comes to gender, but I won’t say which one.) Jude is in fact brimming with worries: she does not know how to behave around adults (of the ‘parents’ friends’ variety), is always attempting, and failing, to be helpful and fill silences without knowing what to say; she is, she says, ‘hopeless’.
Jude’s tutee Pip, son of a surly, burly, rugger-loving rich man, is sixteen, tall and likes Proust and Borges – the latter a name that is ‘familiar’ to Jude, who drags Hemingway around in the usual manner. Eddy, the father, has also employed a cook, Sofi, the core and humour of the novel. She is Polish, but from ‘EA-ling’, pretty – ‘Except pretty isn’t the word – dirty blonde, dirty tan, denim-blue eyes’, as well as, one infers, prominent breasts. Her vocabulary is almost as striking: peppering affectionate insults, mainly at Pip, with ‘schmuck’, ‘knobber’, ‘poof’, ‘saddo’; delightful compared to Jude’s habit of thinking she should be using words like ‘arbitrary and reductive’.
Sark seems like a terrible place, a mouldering, paint-flaked collection of shacks with some stretches of bucolically quaint island scenery. Even when sunny, one retains the early image that the ‘sky was as white as this page, just so much brighter.’ (When Rankin-Gee’s first-person narrator says things like the preceding statement and ‘I should say now that Sofi doesn’t come across quite right on the page’, and appears to be addressing no one in particular, I want to ask, Who are you talking to?) From large bright skies the summer begins and, lasting for almost two-thirds of the book, it’s a long one, appropriate to the way we can sometimes spend summers, usually when young, away from our lives: there is little teaching, but lots of bad cooking, walks, skinny-dipping, drinking with Czech boys, scallop-poaching and all is good enough fun until a disastrous dinner party, with Pip’s extended lumpen family. If Pip is supposed to be socially awkward, disliking eye contact etc., then Jude is surely neurotic – ‘All of us, I thought, we keep on not dying’ – and Sofi a variety of manic. One would suggest group therapy, but group sex (possibly contrary to psychological probability) serves to cement their friendships and, much like concrete, fix them in time as well:
‘As long as it ends where it began, with leaves, and light coming through them. With the sun. Sun on Pip, and sun on Sofi. The sun on all of us, when we were young, when we were kings.’
Of course, the trouble with a premature ending is beginning anything ever again. Post-Sark, terrible things ripple around the lives of the disbanded tryst.
We can forgive a novel that begins with a description of how the author would film it, for cribbing a line from a film title; if, that is, we can forgive that first thing. Rankin-Gee is a pleasingly assured writer who avoids cliché and manages to explore different voices by jumping shamelessly around from first person to third person, first person mixed within second; past tense, present tense. Her dialogue clips along in short sentences (this is not a book for long speeches) and she has some skill in crafting a phrase: ‘A ball bearing rolled around the bottom of my belly.’; ‘He moved his eyes down Sofi’s back like a zip.’
If this is a novel about growing up, coming of age, then it is of a particular kind: Cyril Connolly said that the effect the great public schools have on their boys is ‘so intense as to dominate their lives and arrest their development’. The rest merely have university to become mortally attached to and it is surely this aimlessness that Jude, living in Paris, is experiencing when she says ‘It goes so fast. Two and a half years I’ve been here, and you, three. And what have we done?’, and many will be familiar with the sinking feeling as summer, and then the year, ‘keeps on leaving and nothing’s ever changed.’ How do we know when our lives have begun or if this, as Sofi asks, is ‘what we meant when we said “When I grow up?”.’ The answer is not to be found in Rankin-Gee’s novel – unless it has something to do with not living in Paris – but this debut makes one hopeful to be able to continue the search with her in future works. Nostalgia may be ‘one of the hardest things to write down’ but there is a moveable feast here for anyone looking to gorge on their own youthful memories.