Jane Rusbridge’s second novel is a deftly wrought story with as many strata as an archaeological dig. Between seductively soft-textured covers, ROOK offers extraordinary emotional depth under a wide horizon.
In the opening chapter, a brief flashback to a battle field in eleventh century Sussex implies the origins of an underlying theme: the grave of a child found beside that of her father, King Cnut, in Bosham Church. As the novel unravels this piece of local mythology, it is like exposing deep layers of an excavation that leach through the stories of the two main characters.
Mother and daughter occupy the same house, Nora’s childhood home to which she has returned unexpectedly, but they live on different planes in constant tension. Nora, a brilliant young concert cellist, has suppressed her musical talent along with memories of a recent infatuation, and a tragedy she cannot yet acknowledge, pushing herself instead on early morning runs along the dunes and sandy footpaths around Bosham.
This is the author’s home territory; she lovingly, lyrically evokes the coastal landscape through which Nora moves:
“From the creek comes the ching-ching-ching of halyards against masts and a sudden briny gust tells her the tide is on the turn, seawater pushing into Salthill Creek, frilling over silt and weed to float the leaning boats.”
Nora’s mother, Ada, widow of an archaeologist previously involved in examining the graves inside the church, delves relentlessly into her own past to refashion her increasingly unreliable memories into episodes of greater excitement and romance. But Ada, too, lives with her secrets.
“Ada neatens a pile of photographs. Fifty years ago, near as damn it. Dust in the back of her throat from the sifted rubble. Her new cardigan was powder-blue cashmere, snug across the bust. Pearl buttons. She can feel them, the way each button rolled hard as an acid drop between her fingers as she fastened them.”
The characters of these two women are richly and sensitively drawn, as are those of local inhabitants whose lives intersect with theirs, playing a role in revealing their stories, and their secrets: Evie, the insightful, unflappable young earth-mother, living in a boathouse halfway to conversion as tearooms; Harry, the handy-man with a mysterious background, whose profound capacity for understanding and compassion is not matched by his ability to communicate, and local historian, Elsa Macloed, debating her theories on the mutilated body of King Harold, her arms elbow deep in a mixing bowl of dough. Into this circle steps a jaunty London journalist, Jonny, willing to chance his arm, and anyone else’s, for a scoop. And they all connect with crackling dialogue.
Rising above these seams of past and present lives, is Rook – a fledging Nora found, barely alive, and nurtured in a willow basket until he was mature enough to fly: a symbol of reawakening during one long, hot summer that is woven through the entire story.
But ROOK is not an ‘undemanding’ read. Jane Rusbridge presents a literary novel; there is significance in what is not written. The first few short chapters uncover intriguing glimpses of story; it’s like finding rare shards or fragments of flint at a dig – tiny, subtle, seemingly unconnected treasures which must wait for interpretation. Like most readers, I enjoy the teasing out of story elements but this time it seemed prolonged and, for me, it made a slow entry into the novel.
If you are one of those people who like to tip out the jigsaw puzzle box and find a few pieces already joined up, never mind, read on, you are rewarded from the first page with the author’s exceptional skill at word craft and imagery. One moment we soar with birds over swathes of Sussex countryside, in the next, a single strand of blonde hair is caught in the frog of a cello bow and “bounces in the sunlight.”
ROOK is a story of human fragility in the inexorable presence of the past, and of compassion that enables us to survive our own histories – an enthralling read.
ROOK by Jane Rusbridge is published by Bloomsbury Circus, August 2012. ISBN 978 1 4088 1795 7
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