Book Review: The Rocks

Thursday 11 June 2015 by

The Rocks, Peter Nichols, Quercus, Book, Heron BooksThe Rocks by Peter Nichols

Published by Heron Books

Three generations, two families, the dangerous delights of a Mediterranean island and the mystery of a bitter enmity.

In 1948, Gerald Rutledge, a World War Two veteran, sailing a small boat around the Mediterranean tracing the route of Homer’s Odyssey, meets Lulu Davenport, a pre-sixties wild child, living on a cliff-top villa in Mallorca. The secret of what happened during their brief, disastrous marriage casts a long shadow over the lives, loves and fortunes of their family and friends over the next six decades.

The Rocks opens with a dramatic event which turns on this mystery and then unfolds in reverse chronology through sixty years of two fatefully connected families, amid an expat community of flawed but endearing characters.

Against the background of the aftermath of war, the change from ancient to modern Mediterranean etched on a small Spanish town, two love stories emerge as they are unpeeled over time, back towards their origin and the novel’s shocking resolution.

The Rocks is a rich and rewarding novel of family and place, a sometimes comic, often bittersweet chronicle of the enduring forces of fate and love.

~*~

The Rocks is the penultimate book in my Curtis Brown Book Group, so comes with a bittersweet taste anyway. But this novel is all about the bittersweet. Told in reverse, the lives of Gerald and Lulu, and their children and grandchildren, unfold before you, until you reach – as the blurb says – the shocking conclusion (which is really a beginning).

The best way to describe this book is with a quote directly from it:

Thoughts came to her like Russian dolls, each opening and revealing another inside, only the dolls kept getting bigger.

The surrounding characters, each getting younger in Benjamin Button style, are more familiar the less you meet them, and Gerald and Lulu get closer to you the less you know of them. For me, this is the most remarkable part of the novel – the reverse-telling of the story, as if you pick up the end of a thread and follow it back to the spool at its beginning.

There is a louche, bohemian feel to the storytelling. Mallorca is a haven, filled with well-spoken expats and roguish charmers. Lulu – at the centre of it all – is perhaps the most roguish and charming of them all. Gerald is the juxtaposition – dour and quiet, preferring the solitary life to the social butterfly existence of Lulu at the Rocks (the hotel that is the heart of this Mallorcan tale).

The grandchild and children – Charlie, Luc and Aegina – shrink from existence in ever-diminishing years, yet leave their indelible print on their part of the story. Because, although the conclusion centres around Gerald and Lulu, it is a story about all the generations.

In many ways, it is a tale about inevitability, or fate. When something happens, you trace it back to find out what caused it, but in the meantime there has been sixty years of small incidents and occasions, any number of which resulted in the end. I don’t enjoy detective novels very much because I am left too much in the dark. In The Rocks, you are left in blinding Mallorcan sunlight.

I would never have picked this book up of my own accord – when a quote on the front calls it a “family saga”, it tends to put me off – but I was pleasantly surprised by reading it. Although Lulu gets less likeable and Gerald more likeable, although the ending is a foregone conclusion, although some of the language trips me up (it can be coarse and feel over-played), this is a sweet story that engages you from the beginning.

I spent many a childhood holiday on Mallorca’s neighbour, Menorca. These tiny Mediterranean island blips are still a haven, and the particular kind of sunlight, heat and smell from my holidays is reflected back at me in this novel. Perhaps it is more a love story about the island than its occupants. A backwards love poem. The end of the Odyssey, when you shelve your favourite novel back in its place – already knowing the ending, but knowing you will always go back to it. Gerald and Lulu are never really parted over their sixty years separated. Because they are always connected by the island. They always return to the beginning.

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