Robert Lukins' affecting first novel
By Peter Kenneally
The Everlasting Sunday
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.