Saturday, 23 March 2019

Book review: The Everlasting Sunday, Robert Lukins (2018)

This relatively short novel is fairly narrow in scope although thematically its ambit is broad. The style is graceful, borrowing from Joyce, especially the first chapter of ‘Ulysses’. The writing also reminded me of that of Cynthia Ozick for a certain economical flair that it possesses. Many will find the writing in this novel to be difficult but I found it vigorous and fresh. As a vehicle for signification, it is acutely metaphorical and does well the job it is meant to do.

The ensemble that the author creates has echoes of the Harry Potter mysteries because of the way the old house in it seems to contain elemental forces that emblematise good and evil. But while the Harry Potter stories were deliberately aimed at children, this book aims determinedly at securing a place in the adult market for literary fiction.

The story centres mainly on the lives of a group of young men. Most of the narrative is focalised through the character of Radford, a youth who is sent to Goodwin Manor, a foster home in rural Shropshire, by his uncle, who presumably cannot look after him. The first winter of Radford’s stay is harsh but he gets by in the company of others, notably a physically delicate but lively boy named West. There are others too who animate this cloistered universe with its country lanes and its tame river. Parts of the narrative are also focalised through the personification of winter itself, and this is intended to lend the story a kind of gravitas in the same way that a chorus can lend depth to a song.

In charge of the home is a kind man named Teddy who gives the boys in his care a degree of freedom to do what they like. He is helped by the cook, whose name is Lillian and who dispenses affection according to her own categories of deservingness. Manny teaches Radford about electrics and one day a former resident named Snuff turns up with a young woman, Victoria, who takes a liking to Radford.

The boys often seek diversion from other activities (lessons don’t appear to take place very much) and can often be found outside drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes. One tradition the boys have is to go to a cemetery nearby and stage a wake for one of the people buried there. To do this they make up stories about the dead person and make toasts to their memory. It is all very congenial, serving to underscore in dramatic fashion the loose regulations circumscribing life in the home.

But of course there are dark undercurrents that confuse the glow these kinds of events provide. The character of Foster, a heavyset young man, is loaded with secondary motivations and Radford discovers things about him that he might have wished to remain ignorant of. Foster stands in, in the drama, for the irrational forces that exist wherever humans live their lives. The story tells us that terrible things can happen despite people’s best efforts to create a nurturing and supportive environment. The story’s climax comes with the end of winter, and it has echoes of two earlier events that had shaken Radford to his core.

By setting the bulk of the story in the early 1960s Lukins is able to establish a certain distance between the present and the events he chooses to convey in his fiction. When the story opens, wartime shortages have not yet ended and there is a kind of grey pallor thrown over the whole that serves to muffle some of the emotions felt by the people involved. Yet even in this circumscribed world there is plenty of room for several stories to evolve that enable the writer to explore a range of different themes, including loyalty and mental illness, friendship and desire.

This historical setting also enables Lukins to focus on ideas to do with society’s understanding of the nature of the individual and his or her place in the community. Teddy comes across as particularly enlightened in this regard and the point is reinforced when an inspector named Cass is sent by the authorities to Goodwin Manor to report on the situation there.

This carefully-crafted novel is successful on its own terms and the quality of the writing in it promises good things to come from Lukins, who is Australian, if he decides that he wants to essay another novel at some point in the future. 

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