In literary fiction, it is often the language that rises above the plot. Sometimes, little seems to happen, but the reader is carried away with the lyricism of the language. While a shocking event happens Robert Lukins’ The Everlasting Sunday, it was the language and sense of place that really struck me about the novel.
The story starts with Radford being driven by a distant uncle to Goodwin Manor, a kind of boys’ boarding house for troubled boys in the depths of winter. A boy called West rises out of the confusion, introducing Radford to the motley and boisterous group of boys that he will now live alongside.
Lukins offers a sense of the bewilderment Radford feels at coming to this place – for a long time there is no explanation of why. It is a bewilderment that is a familiar part of childhood, and it is easy to imagine it being magnified in a place like he Manor. The unreality of the place is reflected in the boys’ decision to postpone New Year’s Day until the weather improves.
It is in this atmosphere that Radford grows closer to West – an island of affection and friendship among the volatile community of boys – while both remain happily ignorant of what brought each other to the Manor. It is clear that many secrets lie beneath the surface of the boys’ stories, and as much in the book remains unsaid as is said.
The winter plays its own role in the novel, creating a sense of claustrophobia in the Manor, and an ominous sense of something, or someone, about to implode. In this atmosphere, the Manor provides a haven from the cold and the boys’ past troubles, but is not ultimately able to protect the boys from each other.
In some ways, I drew parallels with The Secret History by Donna Tartt, although the style of writing is quite different. Both capture the ordinary and extraordinary in the lives of young people who are remote from the wider community.
This is a book that takes work – it’s not an easy read. It is no feel good novel, and it is a stark contrast with the recent trend for ‘uplit’. But it is memorable for the beauty of its language, the way it captures a certain time of a boy’s life, and for the poignant truths revealed in many of the passages. Here are some of my favourites:
“From high above, where fates were decided, these boys appeared as helpless as they truly were. Winter’s show was so great and rare it too could only wonder at what it was getting away with. These lonely humans here, these children, were like currants to be pressed into the cake’s surface.”
“Almost a week had turned over: each day had brought not a sense of understanding but an understanding not to search for sense.”
“The atmosphere had become primed with fractious energy since Cass’s boarding and the doctor’s presence had prompted a great show of things being done. Boys feigned obligation to some task or lesson, moving needlessly between rooms in an attempt to cast the Manor as a place of occupation. Yet Cass induced in them a faltering nervousness that ruined the possibility of anything like work.”
“Brass jabbed him hard in the stomach and West gave a whine as he fell. Lewis came all at once forward and delivered a gross blow to Foster’s jaw. It was the noise of leather on willow, the divine and English sound, and Foster went down holding his head.”
“The village, like all but the truly remote, had come to resemble all the others, with their identical supermarkets and newsagents. There seemed to be a betting shop for every last man, woman and child. Radford finished these unoriginal thoughts. He’d been doing more of that lately: autopilot thinking that drifted towards crankiness. He was determined to keep the habit in check, it being the horse that perpetually grumpy middle-age rode in on.”
“Radford was smiling. He made a face of such pleasure that it would have appeared he was in agony.”