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 Review of Books, Nov 2018.

Published in Sydney Review of Books, 30 Oct 2018.

‘Found by Trouble’ by Sophia Barnes.

The Everlasting Sunday is the first novel from Robert Lukins, a Melbourne writer with a background in journalism, and it’s an entirely distinctive debut: rich with atmosphere, beguiling in its blend of lyricism and quiet menace. Lukins has pointed to a year spent working as a village postman in Shropshire as his inspiration for the rural English setting, here cast in the stark monochrome of an unusually harsh winter. By contrast, the stories collected in Moreno Giovannoni’s Fireflies of Autumn: And Other Tales of San Ginese take place in the hills of Tuscany – a world coloured by turns in scorching sun and unrelenting fog. Giovannoni was born in San Ginese but grew up in rural Victoria, and has worked for many years as a freelance translator. The manuscript of Fireflies of Autumn was the first winner of the Deborah Z. Cass prize for writing by Australian writers from migrant backgrounds. The authors share a lyrical sensibility and a finely-tuned sense of how the fantastical and the mundane, the hopeful and the brutal, are woven together in the stories which define our communities.

The Everlasting Sunday is the story of Radford, seventeen-years-old when he is sent to a home for juveniles in the aftermath of an unspecified incident of violence. It is the English winter of 1962-1963 – a winter so record-breakingly cold that it was known as the Big Freeze – and the home is Goodwin Manor, an unconventional, even chaotic place of refuge for adolescent boys who have been ‘found by trouble’.

Those were the words the man from the government had used: found by trouble. He had been addressing Radford’s mother and in that instant the boy had wanted more than anything to be able to injure time, to go back and remove what it had witnessed; to unstitch this ill that had found him.

The nature of this ill is not made clear to the reader until the end of the novel – even then it remains shrouded in some mystery – and indeed, how Radford got to the Manor will prove far less important than the impact of the months he spends there. The residents of Goodwin, Radford finds, do not enquire of one another why they are there; instead, a kind of anonymity reigns, as each boy arrives trailing his own history, his own particular trouble, and is free to leave it at the door on the way in. The Manor is, for a time at least, the centre of the boys’ world, and it hardly matters what happened beyond its walls but for the fact that it brought them to this place.

When we first meet Radford, he is mistrustful, defensive and suspicious; while capable of charming extroversion when he wants to be, he enters Goodwin determined to remain aloof, and to protect himself from any human connection. Yet, intuitive and observant, he cannot ultimately resist the pull of the boys by whom he is surrounded; he is seduced by their defencelessness, their embrace of him, and the restless energy they share during this formative winter when time seems to have stopped, the world having ground to a freezing halt around them. Lukins’s exploration of adolescent masculinity, with all the camaraderie and vulnerability it entails, is sensitive and thoughtful. He depicts the small kindnesses, the unspoken traumas, and tentative rapprochements that slowly draw Radford out of his shell.

The Manor is overseen by a man named Teddy, a not-quite-fatherly figure whose peculiar mixture of benevolence and authority holds the community of Goodwin together. Many of the assumptions a contemporary reader may bring to the story of a single man, odd to the point of eccentricity, running a mid-century home for troubled boys without much apparent oversight, are entirely undercut by Lukins’s nuanced portrait. More than anything, Teddy seems like a boy who might once have been at Goodwin Manor himself – prone to periods of great energy and deep depression, he subjects the boys to challenges that occasionally border on cruelty yet is also fiercely protective of them. ‘Teddy will have his little edicts,’ Radford is assured, ‘They’re only to keep the game alive, nothing to be frightened of.’ And what is the game? At first glance we might think, as Radford does, that Teddy intends to teach the boys resilience, hard-headedness, so that each might learn from the ‘trouble’ that has found him and brought him to Goodwin.

‘I’m answerable to myself. I’m the only one who can take responsibility, I know.’

‘My god, no.’ Teddy took Radford’s hand in his. ‘Who told you that? What a pile of arse. How are you supposed to look after yourself? You’re a sad little ant. A child. Do you not see? You’re to look after each other.’

If there is much darkness at Goodwin – the violence which has brought so many of the boys to its doors intrudes often enough, and the winter will not pass without tragedy – there is also the powerful solace of friendship.

Lukins is an assured writer, weaving ghostly imagery of a snap-frozen English countryside into the measured, seductive pace of his narrative to beautifully ominous effect. ‘Winter explored its creation, in every direction white, flying on its arrows through the spaces in trees and animals.’ The boys of Goodwin Manor are vividly drawn, full of life: West, first encountered, is ‘a boy who filled the hall with a fair, nauseating energy’; as Radford gets his bearings in the crowded Manor, the bodies of the boys ‘maraud’, ‘huddle’ and ‘charge’ through corridors and down stairs. The novel’s peculiar, poignant balance of hopefulness and resignation, possibility and deprivation, empathy and violence, is captured in one of the boys’ favourite pastimes. Ploughing through the silent, stark-white woods to the cemetery, sipping from an illicit bottle of liquor as they go, the boys challenge one another to tell the stories of the bodies that lie under the hard-frosted ground. The wilder, the more convolute and unbelievable the better: tales of adventure, triumph and misfortune. In these stories they imagine other lives, other ways of being in the world – from the heroic to the ridiculous – far from their own.

The nominal narrator of the stories collected in Fireflies of Autumn is Ugo Giovannoni, an elderly migrant from the town of San Ginese, now living in Australia; the stories find their way onto the page by virtue of Ugo’s partnership with a fellow sanginesini referred to only as ‘The Translator’, whose own story of migration bookends the collection. Approaching the end of his life in a country far from that of his birth, Ugo records a history that might otherwise be lost entirely.

Some of these tales, dear reader, are set in the olden days, some in more recent times. All the tales are true, most of them unfold in a hamlet of San Ginese called Villora. You may search for a map and images of this place and they will exist, but you will never find it. Just as migrants do not ever truly arrive at their destination, so those who remain behind disappear and become untraceable.

The relationship between the real and the fictional, the remembered and the imagined, is at the heart of this collection. Stories are frequently accompanied by mementos: photos of individuals, buildings and items which appear within them. The cumulative effect of these is to create a kind of documentary-fiction, as the stories of a town percolate through its community, shape-shifting, taking on new voices; turning townspeople into legends, lived events into fables.

The stories of San Ginese jump back and forth in time, weaving in and out of the houses within the village, introducing here and there characters who do not reappear until many pages further on. Without the town the stories cannot exist; without the stories, the town cannot exist, even as its inhabitants spread themselves across the globe. All – or almost all – will eventually return. The experience of migration defines San Ginese, affecting every family in one way or another. Villagers migrate to America or Australia or elsewhere, and then return, tracing a well-worn path across the oceans and back again. ‘Migrants never arrive at their destination’ reads the collection’s epigraph, echoed by Ugo above – and what is that destination? The site to which they are migrating? The home to which they are returning? Even if a migration is not permanent in the physical sense, can the home from which one has departed, however briefly, be reclaimed?

Yes, [the men of San Ginese] went to America and yes, they made money, if they were lucky but their hearts broke. They caught a disease, a deep sadness that afflicted soldiers fighting away from home, soldiers who were otherwise fit, a homesickness that killed them, whether they stayed or returned home.

The experience of migration, it seems, effects a severing that can never be repaired, whether or not the migrant arrives at his nominal destination or returns to the place from which he set off.

Giovannoni’s prose is deceptively simple, with a folk-tale like rhythm, his stories layered one upon another, by turns tragic and romantic, ridiculous and shocking, magical, murderous and mundane. There is Tommaso the Killer, waiting half a lifetime to exact revenge on the man who stole his fortune and his future as they laboured together in California. There is Tista, ‘the first to leave’, beginning the town’s great pattern of migration. There is Bucchione, independent, strong and principled, a man whom the whole of San Ginese would (and does) follow anywhere, yet who is haunted by the Angel of Sadness. There are Liudina and Mariella, left behind by handsome, selfish parents who disappeared to far-off America never to be heard from again.

The two imbecile sisters were stunned by the cold and the hunger and the deep disappointment of their lives – their imbecility, the disappearance across the ocean of their beautiful mother and handsome father, the death of their aunt, the loss of their cow and their chickens and their goose, the devastation of their garden and the sterility of their fig tree – and they sat, they sat, holding each other by the hand, just inside the door of their freezing, crumbling, clay-brick house, looking out, sat, guarding their tree, sat, waiting for spring, sat, waiting for the fig to produce fruit, sat, their eyes large and round and sunken in their sockets, sat, their lips thin and the skin stretched with hunger across their cheeks, sat together, sat, waiting.

If San Ginese is the place to which people return, it is also the place where people are left behind.

In ‘The Enchanted Glade and the Babbling Brook’, the entire population of San Ginese – except for Julio the Orphan – abandon their homes and walk to the nearby town of Compito, escaping the crossfire of the second world war. There they enter a kind of fairy-tale, sleeping through the day and spending their nights in drinking, eating and sensuality. Recalling those fabled wanderers lured into the hillside for a night’s dancing only to emerge hundreds of years later, the villagers of San Ginese very nearly don’t return. In the present day, a man known only as ‘The Visitor’ wanders the streets of Villora, searching for spectres of the past. What he finds is a new era of migration: here a house is being renovated by a family from Albania; here a boy from Morocco rides his bike along the quiet streets. The waves of migration do not end, only shift in shape, as towns – even this town hovering on the edge of myth – change their faces. Migration, like history, is about remembering. The Translator cannot remember San Ginese, yet he is arguably more deeply connected to its stories than those of the country in which he has spent the better part of his life. Memories, recounted to him, become collective, as he comes to realise that his own role has been to forget precisely so that this collective remembering can occur.

The people of San Ginese are migrants by virtue of their fated place within the span of twentieth-century history, the economic forces and the conflicts which force them beyond the confines of their town to seek their fortunes. The lives of their youth are made a ‘human sacrifice’ to the future; having made this sacrifice they return, no longer young, to a home which is no longer home, afflicted with a permanent sense of rootlessness. The boys of Goodwin Manor are likewise rootless, cast out from their homes in sacrifice to the various kinds of trouble by which they have been found. It may be a blessing or a tragedy that this unconventional institution is at one and the same time a brief waystation in their lives, and the only true home some will ever know.

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