Review: The Weekend Australian, 30 June 2018

Robert Lukins’s The Everlasting Sunday: slender and heart-rending

By Stephen Romei, Literary Editor. 

 Robert Lukins and his book, The Everlasting Sunday

Robert Lukins and his book, The Everlasting Sunday

“There are things more miraculous than love.” That opening sentence in The Everlasting Sunday, the debut novel of Melbourne-based Robert Lukins, is interesting of itself. Are there such things? Yet it’s the next sentence that sets the nothing-is-obvious, nothing-is-explicable tone for this remarkable book. “Given the right motivation common water may, for instance, turn itself to solid ice.” That’s one of the “things”? Frozen water? By the time you finish this slender, heart-rending novel you may not disagree.

I read The Everlasting Sunday this week after David Malouf, in our igloo chat I mentioned last week, said it was one of the best novels he had read in recent times. The novel was reviewed in these pages, and positively so, when it came out earlier this year. Having now read it, I want to add a personal recommendation.

Lukins’s novel is set in England in 1962. The author lived in England in his 20s. It unfolds over one winter — the coldest in 300 years, we read later — and centres on a group of teenage boys confined to a house, a “place for boys who had been found by trouble”. Goodwin Manor “was no pretender of authority. It gave no effort to an impression of being an asylum, a prison or an amalgam of the two. It seemed, if anything, to have been fashioned from the innards of innumerable aunts’ drawing rooms …”

The main character is 17-year-old Radford (like any English boarding school, it’s surnames only), a new arrival who combines youthful uncertainty and naivety with an inner strength and single-mindedness that is hard to understand. We wonder what he did to end up in this place. The immediate question is, did trouble find these boys or did these boys find trouble? Or perhaps it’s a brutal blend of both. The odd man who runs the manor, Teddy (as he insists the boys call him), says to Radford, “They sent me the file on you. Before you arrived. Everything. Everything that’s happened.”

Teddy is central to the story. We gradually learn more about him. So are the other boys Radford must live with. One imagines all of them have “files”. West, a boy Radford sort of befriends, says, “As far as I can tell it takes two things to end up at the Manor: a reason and a final straw. A feller’s reason, well, that can be anything.” The second thing, the final straw, is what we want — and don’t want — to know about as the novel moves towards dark places.

Another main character, in a bold touch, is winter, brought alive in a thinking and speaking sense. “Winter held the house by its roof and shook, longing for cracks through which it could plunge its arms and choke these prideful creatures. Its moon face remained without expression. These vainglorious clowns, they would repent.” Of course, these may be the thoughts not of winter but of Radford or one of the other inhabitants, and that is one of the unnerving uncertainties of the story. Trees and birds also have their influence. A large oak on the grounds is both a fraud and a silent witness to something like love, and something like terror. Are the boys “pigs” and “animals’, as they are called, or frightened children?

Lukins’s writing is so assured. I particularly like his willingness, as in that first sentence, to make unusual, sometimes unsettling, connections. He builds a tension from the outset that stretches to the end. There’s a chance, early on, that this is just a regular boys’ home, as far as such an institution can be “regular”. Whether that chance is still there at the end is something readers will have to decide. Some of the final chapters are devastating. Why they are is also something for readers to find out for themselves. As someone who prefers novels that are ambiguous, that avoid “resolution”, that refuse to cross every t and dot every i, I was immersed in The Everlasting Sunday and read it in a sitting. “So what’s the point?” Radford asks early on. The response is, “Who promised you a point?”

  STEPHEN ROMEI  / Literary Editor / Sydney /  @PairRaggedClaws

STEPHEN ROMEI / Literary Editor / Sydney / @PairRaggedClaws

Review: The Australian, 17 March 2018

Characters look for reassurance: Glenda Guest, Robert Lukins

by Ronnie Scott.

 Robert Lukins and his novel The Everlasting Sunday

Robert Lukins and his novel The Everlasting Sunday

Early in Glenda Guest’s A Week in the Life of Cassandra Aberline, a Brecht quote floats through the mind of her well-read protagonist: ‘‘People remain what they are even if their faces fall apart.’’ Reassurance of her substance, of who she is, would be welcome for Cassandra Aberline, a former actress and now a lecturer in Sydney, when we meet her at the start of this novel, Guest’s second after the prize-winning Siddon Rock (2010).

Such reassurance would also be welcome for 17-year-old Radford, the hero ofRobert Lukins’s debut novel, The Everlasting Sunday.

Each of these novels dips into different parts of the 20th century. The protagonists have good reasons to query their foundations, and hang on to them as best they can.

Cassandra in particular is pulled between these impulses: she’s a habitual questioner, but also a self-made woman and therefore a person for whom a strong sense of self is not so much a preference as a requirement.

Guest zeroes in on her character piece by piece. A doctor on Macquarie Street diagnoses Cassandra with Alzheimer’s, leaving her to shake his hand, thank him politely for the life sentence and wonder how, when and to what extent dementia will come.

She wonders: ‘‘will this monstrous thing happening to her … change her into something, someone, else?’’ At the young end of old, ‘‘a smidgin under six feet tall and with startling white hair’’, she decides to take a train west from Sydney across the ‘‘vast inland’’ to ‘‘give her time to think about it all’’. The journey — the week — is the action.

At the outset, we know only that Cassandra came to Sydney 45 years ago across the Nullarbor. She was wearing a jumper she couldn’t take off because it concealed a package tied around her waist. She hasn’t been back to Western Australia since. Guest grew up in the WA wheatbelt.

We do learn why Cassandra made that journey, but we take the long way there. This is a contemplative novel, loose, relaxed and spacious. This contrasts nicely with the clarity of Cassandra’s moment-to-moment mind, and also means we can lope backwards into the past and into long stretches of narrative.

The way we move in and out of experience feels close to life, punctuated with flashes of mystery and significance, but it’s all contextual and, for her current self, only as important as the conversation she’s having in the dining car.

The years we spend the longest in are Cassandra’s early ones living above a tattoo parlour in Kings Cross, ‘‘sad, mad, fragile days’’ in a big, sweaty city in which she learns, through example, what it takes to survive. This and other byways have little bearing on the plot, but they shine through the author’s choice of detail.

Here’s an image that gives a sense of changing Surry Hills, gentrifying but still keeping the texture of its past: Cassandra notices a showroom with ‘‘faded rolls of fabric stacked in the window and dead flies lining the internal sills’’. We’ve all seen those faded rolls and dead flies on the sill; it’s an accumulation of specifics.

As for the plot — the ‘‘unachieved life’’ that’s fixed to Cassandra’s heels and is waiting to be dealt with at the end of the train line — it kicks into gear about halfway through the novel, which now gives us the linear version of her teenage story, an ‘‘uncomplicated life in the clear inland sun’’ that complicates in natural but dramatic fashion. There are new people in this section, and the reader has to work to connect them all, thematically, with everything else in the novel. Two halves, linked by Cassandra but in many ways quite different: they mingle into interesting and unexpected flavours.

Lukins is a Melbourne-based writer. The Everlasting Sunday, howeveris set in England in 1962, at an experimental home for disturbed boys. Just as Guest metes out information about Cassandra Aberline’s past, here we don’t know what Lukins’s protagonist Radford has done to merit being deposited in the Manor.

We know that for Radford and the other teens in the home, it was ‘‘by a long shot the best option they would be offered. The alternative was a more difficult place’’. The warden insists on being called not ‘‘sir’’ but ‘‘Teddy’’.

Some characters, outside observers, think it’s a place destined for failure, the boys inside ‘‘untamed animals’’. Perhaps, as Teddy speculates late in the book, it’s just a ‘‘brief truce’’ between the boys and the world.

Radford comes to realise there are ‘‘no rules, only customs’’, and that ‘‘a conscious vagueness’’ inhabits the Manor, as do ‘‘equivalents to teachers’’. When violence happens, it’s either for petty reasons (for attention) or almost balletic, causing a ‘‘stripe of red’’ to spread down a boy’s nice shirt.

While Guest follows her character’s thoughts between the past and the present, Lukins is closely fixed on Radford in a terrible winter called the Big Freeze that starts out a ‘‘cold snap’’ and turns into a ‘‘national wreck’’. It defines the boys’ movements and the novel’s tone, which is often quiet, but bursts out vividly when focused on the weather. ‘‘From high above, where fates were decided, these boys … were like currants.’’

Because we’re mostly limited to Radford’s observable present, he and other characters are sympathetic puzzles, their actions restrained and coded.

Like Radford, we’re lulled by the muteness of the country, the season and the Manor. When things go wrong, the violence sits ironically against the lighter incidents early in the novel. It also calls attention to the fragility of the Manor and its inhabitants.

Each of these quiet books has a dissonant ending; a strange new note is introduced. While the characters are worried about who they are and what they’ll do, the authors are playing with the role of chance in time, showing that events can come for us at any time, shaking us up, striking us out of the blue.

Ronnie Scott is a writer and critic.

Review: Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Canberra Times, 14 March 2018

Robert Lukins' affecting first novel

By Peter Kenneally

The Everlasting Sunday
Robert Lukins
UQP $29.95

The boys' boarding-school narrative has a long and varied pedigree. It encompasses Tom Brown's travails and triumphs; Orwell's miseries; the many endearing scrapes and japes of Jennings and Darbyshire; and is made myth in William Golding's Lord of the Flies. One might have thought, in the new millennium, it had run its course, but then along came Harry Potter and it sprang to life again, only slightly altered by the presence of magic and girls.

The Everlasting Sunday, Robert Lukins' debut, gives the genre a new aspect, and while it doesn't always convince, it does some interesting, unexpectedly affecting things along the way. It's 1962 in England, the coldest winter in living memory, and a 17-year-old boy named Radford is dropped off by his distant uncle at Goodwin Manor, a home for boys who have been "found by trouble". Overseen by Teddy, a troubled amalgam of Mr Chips and A.S. Neill, the boys work through their troubles, largely while behaving like adolescent boys at any boys' school anywhere, ever.

Lukins captures the flow and jag of young male camaraderie, bluster and foolishness with great tenderness. Most notably, Radford's friendship with West, who has different, equal troubles, is real and subtle, full of pain and comfort. The noise of the book, often distracting, falls away around them. Lukins isn't quite so good on the darker side of male bonding, and makes it work harder in the service of the plot. As in memory, perhaps, the other boys all seem to be essentially the same person, except for the hulking, threatening Foster, who hardly seems to be human at all, more a kind of Golem.

This is what happens at school, though, to those who are outside any circle, so there's a rightness to it. The book hints that he's a working-class Golem, an interesting suggestion, and one that brings in a whole new school-story subtext. Working-class youth have been repelled and fascinated in equal measure by public school stories since almost forever, so it's a rich seam of possibility.

Lukins achieves something delicate and spare (the episodes and events are quite cinematic in their effect, rather than driving and accumulating), but he doesn't quite seem to trust it, and risks burying it under stylistic accretions. As an atmospheric chamber piece with hints of something beneath, the novel might have felt lighter but been, in the final analysis, more successful.

Even so, the tendency to ornament in the prose style is only intrusive in the moment. It leaves the note, pure and easy, (to quote Pete Townshend, a troubled boy the same age as Radford, as it happens) intact in recall and surprisingly steady.

I wished he had had more faith in the idea of winter in its own right, and in our ability to see what that implied for the characters: and been less overawed by the necessity for denouement.

In a surprising way the novel fixes the period, not with detail or reference, but because sometimes it feels like a novel written in 1962 by a slightly old-fashioned author at odds with the times. That feels like what Robert Lukins might be, and if so, he will almost certainly come up with something valuable and particular as he finds a way to be old-fashioned about his own time.

Review: 9 Honey, Booktopia, 25 Feb 2018

Review by John Purcell

The Everlasting Sunday
by Robert Lukins

At first I thought Robert Lukins’ The Everlasting Sunday was going to be a homage to Golding’s Lord of the Flies – a home for delinquent boys cut off from the world by the worst snowstorm on record. Cue all hell breaking loose. But instead I found myself reading a book more akin to Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

The Manor is a home for boys ‘found by trouble’. We enter with seventeen year old Radford who has been unceremoniously dropped off by his uncle as the snowstorm worsens. We don’t know what he has done to deserve being sent away, we just know he is apprehensive and determined not to bend to the will of others.

Books about young men, especially those whom society rejects, tend toward an unrelenting brutality that never quite rings true to me. In The Everlasting Sunday, the boys are more rounded. They are vulnerable. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. They crave affection. Saying that, Lukins doesn’t shy away from their faults. The adolescent boys can also be extremely violent and cruel. Lukins depicts these outbursts, and their aftermaths, unflinchingly but they are always part of a larger whole. The boys are not savages. The bonds they form can and often do lead to affection and even to empathy.

Outside the Manor weeks of heavy snow isolate the boys from society, but it also provides a dangerous playground. Lukins even gives Winter a role to play, a dark reminder of our inherent fragility. And Radford and the boys flirt with oblivion, intentionally and unintentionally.

The Everlasting Sunday is a beautifully written, subtle novel, dealing with loss, forgiveness, love, redemption and the complexity of our natures. It will reward readers who loved, as I did, The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop and The Good People by Hannah Kent