Review by Anna Macdonald.
Set in England during the Big Freeze of 1962–63 – the coldest winter in nearly 300 years – Robert Lukins’s first novel tells the story of Radford, who is sent to live at Goodwin Manor, ‘a place for boys who have been found by trouble’. The Manor is overseen by Teddy, a charismatic depressive, who resists pressure to establish a ‘philosophy’ of reform and instead determines ‘only to keep [the boys in his care] alive’.
Here, Radford meets West and other boys united by what West describes as ‘a reason’ – ‘the thing way down in a person that means you can’t get along with the regulars’ – and ‘a final straw’ – ‘[s]ome thing that happens that means your dumb life can’t keep going the way it was’. Teddy refuses to read the files that outline each boy’s troubled history and among the boys themselves there is a reluctance to confide. ‘Silence here, Radford concluded, was the truest act of loyalty.’ The silences that persist – and are a particular strength of the novel – shape relations between the boys and create a rare sense of foreboding and impending catastrophe.
The Gothic temper of the narrative is clear. Doubly isolated from the nearest village by woods and roads made impassable by snow, Goodwin Manor teeters on the edge of ruin. Radford observes that it ‘had the comforting look of death’. However, there is another, deeper Gothic current in Lukins’s novel, which lends itself to an ecopoetic reading. Winter insinuates itself into the action: in the unnatural confinement of the boys indoors, and the simmering violence and occasional brutal outbursts that occur in consequence, but also in brief sections that are narrated from the perspective of the season itself. Throughout the novel, Winter observes the boys – ‘trespassers’ – threatens its revenge, and further heightens the suspense in this compelling début.