"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 and someone who could teach their son." The first line of Rosa Rankin-Gee's debut novel sets up the premise of the story that unfolds. Recent St Andrew's graduate Jude arrives on Sark to tutor Pip, the sixteen year old son of Eddy and Esmé Defoe, who will be going to school on the mainland for the sixth form. She travels to Sark, the last place in Europe to end feudalism, first by small plane with meat and the badoit that seems to be the only sustenance of Esmé, and then by ferry from Guernsey. Jude is nervous and gauche and ready to cede leadership to Sofi, the beautiful, young Polish cook who is easy and confident and rebellious. Over the course of the summer Jude, Pip and Sofi become a threesome as Eddy leaves for work and Esmé barely leaves her top floor prison/sanctuary.
There are number of things Rankin-Gee does very well - the descriptions of Sark and small island life are charming. She describes bicycling in the dark, illegal scallop fishing and small shops with precision. She captures the feeling of a hot lazy summer beautifully and her descriptions of growing sensuality and love all help build an idyll that is shattered and then rebuilt..
For me, this would have been better if it has been left as a novella. The second section, with its short pieces covering ten years or so from the points of view of the three protagonists, feels more like a number of creative writing exercises than part of a coherent whole. I like fragmentary novels but this needed more editing to raise them above sketches and the varying points of view are not all successful.
Even in the novella, there are problems: Esme is frankly unbelievable as a character and Rankin-Gee's narrator Jude is meant to be mysterious but ends up being annoying. For example, Jude refuses to say where she is from or where she went to school but we never get the pay off from the mystery. This tendency continues in the second, more fragmentary half, although there is a pay off on a couple of occasions - in a pastoral scene with a new love and a scene on the metro.
The prologue starts "If this were a film I would want it to start with leaves, and light coming through them. The sun would hit the camera straight on, and splinter out and catch dust. Light and leaves are how I'd want it to begin." Rosa Rankin-Gee starts and ends her novel with nostalgia and it is steeped with that throughout; that sense that she describes as 'the tugging at the base of your stomach.' In the last chapter Jude revisits the island and muses on their time there - 'New Scientist says that music is the closest thing to time travel,' and Rankin-Gee almost pulls those later fragmentary pieces together, but to my mind doesn't quite succeed. And in trying to work out why I think it's because the characters is her novella are not fully developed so we remain unconvinced by the snapshot updates we are given.
There is much promise here though and I look forward to reading more from her.
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