Robert Lukins’s The Everlasting Sunday: slender and heart-rending
By Stephen Romei, Literary Editor.
“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?”