Rosa Rankin-Gee’s debut novel about three young people who spend a memorable summer together on a tiny island in the English Channel is a powerfully moving work of rare subtlety, writes Lucy Scholes
“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. I was none of those things, apart from young. But a merchant banker called Edward Defoe flew me out to Sark on a private plane, together with frozen meat and three crates of Badoit, and that’s how it started.”
Twenty-one-year-old Jude’s charge is 16-year old Pip, one of only a handful of students educated at the single school on the tiny Channel Island of Sark, taught mainly via video links to schools in England and the United States – an island so small its population is about 600, more of a summer holiday destination than a permanent home for many; and so isolated and ancient that it was the last place in Europe to abolish feudalism, just five years ago in 2008, the island’s seigneur “semi-renting” the land from the queen for the nominal sum of £1.79 (Dh11) a year. Jude arrives, unsure of what to expect. She has “half heard” certain facts: “that there were no cars, something about the war, Nazi occupation and feudalism”. But really, she doesn’t know anything about the place, or the family she’s going to work for.
Eddy is a man Jude has “already met in slices. Friends’ dads, bosses, men in restaurants” – he sails (and wears the appropriate, expensive navy polos), keeps a well-stocked wine cellar, eats the best cuts of steak, and the expected signet ring is “squeezing his little finger”. He’s a distinctive type of successful, wealthy, British male, noisy and brash, the complete opposite of his lanky, quietly distant son, who reads Proust and Borges. Pip clearly takes after his delicate, temperamental mother, the birdlike – “dark, tiny, beautiful” – but clearly ill, Esmé. She languishes, hidden away upstairs in her bedroom, refusing all food, each tray sent up at mealtimes returned untouched, “looking like glossy display meals at Japanese restaurants”, her only source of sustenance a regular supply of the imported Badoit water – enough, it seems, to fuel occasional long, lonely walks across the island. The final member of the household is Sofi, the also newly arrived 19-year-old cook, Polish in origin, but born and bred in the rather less exotic Ealing. Sofi is pretty, charismatic and completely magnetic – Jude is captivated from the minute she sees her.
Esmé, having kicked up a fuss about Jude staying in the house with the family – her motivations for employing a male tutor would appear to be more than just thoughtful companionship for her son – banishes her to a nearby guest house where, due to issues of available space, she and Sofi are forced to share a room, cycling in to work each morning and home again each night together: Sofi always “in front, faster, wobbly” and Jude “in her slipstream”.
Each morning, they arrive at the Defoes’ house, Sofi makes Pip eggs for breakfast, despite his protests, then he and Jude retire to a dark, heavy-curtained study that “smelt of books and unbeaten cushions” for their lessons. There are cake-fuelled coffee breaks, and long, leisurely lunches with Eddy in the garden (Esmé remaining in her room, and Sofi eating alone in the kitchen, as apparently befits her place in the house) – a routine is quickly developed and as readily broken as Jude and Pip gravitate towards the gregarious Sofi and her realm, spending more and more time in the kitchen: “It worked, it somehow worked, the three of us, tea after tea, tale after tale at the table.”
Then, on only Jude’s 11th day on the island, Eddy announces that he is leaving for an unanticipated three-week business trip, starting immediately, and the three suddenly find themselves left to their own devices.
“What makes classic children’s literature so appealing [to all ages],” writes the sharp-eyed American writer Janet Malcolm, “is its undeviating loyalty to the world of the child. In the best children’s books, parents never share the limelight with their children; if they are not killed off on page 1, they are cast in the pitifully minor roles that actual parents play in their children’s imaginative lives.” Rankin-Gee’s three protagonists may be slightly older than the youths Malcolm has in mind, but The Last Kings of Sark conforms wholeheartedly to this model. Caught between childhood and adulthood, lingering in the half-lit gloaming of adolescence, Jude, Sofi and Pip spend one glorious, carefree summer together on this tiny isolated island, making, as children do, their own world around them. “It wasn’t a conscious decision that everything would change when Eddy went away,” Jude remembers, but change it does – their “schoolroom” lessons are abandoned and they’re accountable to no one.
The bubble eventually has to burst, though; this kind of innocent idyll can’t last forever. The last night before Eddy returns, they eat a dinner of “kids’ food” (potato smileys and baked beans) – “we were kids and we were going to have kids’ food. Teacher, cook, we were all acting” – as if somehow marking the passing of this prelapsarian bliss. So, too, the summer sun quite literally sets as Eddy’s return brings with it stormy weather bad enough to hasten Jude’s departure for the mainland. The three spend a final night together that breaks all the rules, the events of which, whether unexpected or just the natural conclusion of their summer, will haunt them each in different ways for years to come.
The second half of the novel follows the futures of the three, their paths occasionally crossing, but more often than not, missing each other. While Sofi and Pip press forward with their lives, Jude is trapped in a painful limbo, unable to let go of the summer when her eyes “formed” – “maybe not ‘formed’, but saw things, and thought what they would be in words. I looked so hard at everything”. So much of the sensation of the story hangs on this successful expression of the ephemerality of the moment and the near-pathological urge to recreate it, to revisit the now ungraspable past.
Rankin-Gee may be a new voice, and, at only 27, a young one at that, but she’s well aware of the powers of nostalgia, and the problems of evoking this gauzy, slippery emotion. It’s “one of the hardest things to write down. Even the word – it tangles,” Jude admits towards the end of the novel. “Perhaps the only way it can exist outside the body is in music. New Scientist says that music is the closest thing to time travel. I read it in someone’s loo once. Everything that happens in between the first and the last time you hear a song concertinas into nothing. In your head, it’s the first time again, but everywhere else it isn’t. And it feels like tugging at the base of your stomach.” So, too, Rankin-Gee’s novel latches on and won’t let go, tugging at you. The prose, on occasion, seems tellingly youthful, the chapters short and somewhat unformed, something that at first, troubled me. But as I let myself be lulled by the rhythm of the narrative, accepting the choppy, half memories and stop-starting of narrative threads as indicative of exactly what they were, I found myself powerfully moved. The Last Kings of Sark is a debut novel of rare subtly, and Rankin-Gee a wordsmith of talent beyond her years.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.