So begins the story of the magical summer Jude spent on the island of Sark (near Guernsey) when she was 21.
The ‘they’ referred to are the wealthy parents of sixteen year old Pip who hire Jude to live on the island and teach their son. Jude is a graduate but a ridiculous choice to teach the superbrainy Pip anything. Not that it ends up mattering. On her first day Jude meets and is mesmerised by another hired hand, Sofi, from “Poland via Ealing”. Sofi is edgy, beautiful, nineteen. She’s a reasonably good cook but also a breaker of rules and a resentful noticer of the many slights and put-downs inflicted upon her, a working-class girl, by this tiny and class-conscious society. Jude spends most of her time studying Sofi. Pip watches them both.
The first half of the book tells the story of that one summer on Sark. It’s the story of Jude, Sofi and Pip getting to know each other. The ‘adults’ leave them to their own devices (Pip’s father goes to England on business, Pip’s French mother closets herself upstairs in her bedroom) and the three young people run wild around the island.
The second half of the book is more sober. We catch up with Sofi, Jude and Pip one year later, a couple of years later and, finally, ten years later. They spend almost all of this time apart in various parts of France. Sad things happen, life potential is squandered. There is love and contentment too, so it’s not all grim. (In fact it’s probably pretty much like real life.)
But it’s that summer that stands out in highest relief. Island life is evoked brilliantly ‑ cliffs, sea, wind, water, salt, the sun. And the three young people screaming in the wind, cycling crazily in the dark, jumping of treacherous ledges into little coves. Drinking, fighting, falling in love. The first half of the book is a short and flawless coming-of-age novel. One that you want to read over again to recapture those feelings ‑ of possibility, freedom, depthless friendship and fun. Of course it wouldn’t feel so real if it didn’t also include the awkwardness and painful insecurities of being young and meeting strangers ‑trying to project the right image and feeling like you’re getting everything wrong. The first half is all from Jude’s perspective and she’s a funny, self-conscious bag of nerves who rarely knows what to do with her face when interacting with the ‘adults’:
Esme [Pip’s mum] was wearing black again, and her legs looked like pipe cleaners. That was what I saw at a glance, because I didn’t know if I was actually allowed to look at her. I also didn’t know where to put my hands.
Once again, it was difficult to know what to do with my face; did he [Pip’s Dad] want me to look sad that he was leaving, or sufficiently capable to be left in charge? Was I being left in charge? I didn’t know. I did a bit of both: sad, capable.
I wondered what my listening face was like. I thought about it, and tried different ones. I don’t know if these faces worked…
The book as a whole is thick with a feeling of nostalgia. We are always looking back, nothing is ever as good as it was and it never will be that good again. It’s like the characters are all stuck. The theme is well developed and not sentimental but it drains the novel of some of its vitality. It’s still a beautiful read, though.
This is Rosa Rankin-Gee’s first novel.
Highlights: Portrayal of an intense memorable coming-of-age summer. Depiction of island life. Great humour, both dry and hysterical.
Otherlights: Helps if you share a nostalgic view of life.