Falling: The Rocks by Peter Nichols

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Have you ever thought that life would all make sense when you got to the end of it and looked back? Have you identified those moments, decisions, actions in which life changed course immediately? The Rocks, Peter Nichols’ second novel, raised these questions in my mind but didn’t answer them reassuringly. It did, however, give me a very enjoyable read.

When the book opens, it is 2005 and long-divorced couple Lulu and Gerald have encountered one another for the third time in the sixty years since their disastrous honeymoon, despite being two ex-patriot Brits living on the same small Spanish Island. The chance meeting at a local market, ends on the road to Lulu’s resort hotel, the Rocks.

Mallorca coast. Photo credit Pixabay.com

Mallorca coast. Photo credit Pixabay.com

[Gerald] caught up with Lulu just outside the Rocks. He grabbed her arm again with strength field by rage, and spun her round.

“You never — he stared, with a smoker’s bulling growl, but his chest was empty of air, heaving spasmodically.

Again, Lulu shook off his grip. But she was surprised and immensely pleased to see the effort Gerald had made, how overwrought, breathless, and unwell he was. It occurred to her that with just a nudge, he might easily die of a heart attack right in front of her. “You’re pathetic, Gerald. An empty, hobbling husk of a man.” A flame of old anger rose in her. “You’re a belter! A miserable, wretched shit of a fucking —

You never developed the film! Did you!” The furious, strangled world erupted wetly out of Gerald’s chest, his body pitching forward. “I lured them away! Do you understand? I got them away ! I — ” His blue-and-gray glistening face thrust into hers, but he had no more breath.

The encounter ends, shall we say, badly and without further explanation. Over the course of the next several hundred pages, Nichols leads the reader back in time through the lives of Gerald and Lulu, Gerald’s daughter Aegina and her child Charlie, Lulu’s son Luc and his frustrated careers, and illuminates motivations, temptations, sins, and omissions in reverse. The Rocks drops the reader into 2005, 1995, 1983, 1970, 1966, 1956, 1951, until, finally, we reach the beginning in 1948, and the revelation of what happened on Gerald and Lulu’s honeymoon voyage.

It reminded me a bit of one of my favorite novels of the last few years, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, reviewed here: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/simply-beautiful-beautiful-ruins-by-jess-walter/.

Emma Straub’s 2014 novel The Vacationers, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/the-vacationers-by-emma-straub/ is also set during a disintegrating family’s vacation on Mallorca, but other than setting has little in common with The Rocks. 

Gerald Rutledge, my favorite character of the book, has devoted his life to three things: repeating Odysseus’ voyage and

John William Waterhouse, 1891

John William Waterhouse, 1891

finding the actual locations of incidents in The Odyssey; raising his daughter Aegina; and working and preserving his own little bit of Mallorcan paradise with its olive groves and lemon trees. Lulu, conversely, I didn’t like at all. She devotes her entire life, seemingly, to scheming revenges, neglecting her child, and plotting sexual pairings.

Kate Christensen, reviewer for the New York Times Book Review, read Nichols’ memoir Sea Change.

As I read, I had a series of “aha!” moments; the parallels between Nichols’s own life and marriage and those of his fictional characters were deeply satisfying to uncover. Nichols, like his character Luc, grew up partially on Mallorca, the son of divorced parents. Like the novel’s secondary lovers, Luc and Aegina, Nichols and his ex-wife met as children on the island, and their own romance failed, in part, because of their inability to transcend their childhood knowledge of each other and ­become adults together. The memoir, like the ­novel, contains a precipitous nautical elopement, dope smuggling in Morocco and a young wife held hostage by pirates. People getting into trouble, both on boats and in marriages, might be said to be the common theme between the two books.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/books/review/the-rocks-by-peter-nichols.html

I very much enjoyed The Rocks. The themes of regret, misunderstanding, romantic love and adventure will be excellent fodder for your book club’s discussion.

MENU

On board Szabo’s yacht, a luxurious menu is served.

Two young crewmen appeared with bowls of salad. They poured wine for each of the guests. . . . the plates were handed out: cold grilled quail with a reduced fig sauce, tiny warm new potatoes, avocado halves filled with pomegranate seeds, plates of toast with pate de foie gras.

Gerald’s own menu is much simpler: “Aegina had made the tumbet she had learned from her mother: a Mallorcan dish full of aubergines, tomatoes, onion, garlic, goat cheese, and olives from Gerald’s trees.”

This recipe for Mallorcan Tumbet fromSpanish Sabores blog looks like the genuine article:  http://spanishsabores.com/2013/09/15/mallorcan-tumbet-recipe/

MUSIC

Aegina listens to her father’s favorite records while painting. Those mentioned, pastoral music of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century English composers, are: “Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Butterworth, Holst, Finzi, Alwyn, Bantock, Parry, Bridge, Delius, Moeran.”

iTunes has a $7.99 album of Elgar’s music. Elgar: Enigma Variations, Introduction & Allegro. Spotify has an English Song Series by Butterworth you could play for free.

MOVIE CASTINGthe rocks

Gerald – Benedict Cumberbatch

Lulu – Emily Blunt

Luc – Jamie Bell

Aegina – Oona Chaplin

Happy Reading & Eating!

Easy links for purchase:

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As the World Re-Turns: Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

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Ursula Todd, born first on a snowy night in the English countryside, is finding herself the victim of a fairly serious case of déjà vu.  So alarming in fact that Ursula’s parents take her to the office of psychiatrist when she is ten years old where the good doctor first suggests that Ursula may be remembering other lives.  In Life After Life, the first of Atkinson’s two companion novels centered around the Todds of Fox Corner, that is precisely what is happening.

Life After Life revolves around those of Ursula.  By my reading, Ursula seemed to live longer each life and always died in a different way.  At first, instinctively avoiding the pitfalls that had brought about her untimely demise and in her later lives with a seeming knowledge that she had actually been there before and knew that the maid should not be allowed back in the house after visiting London where the flu epidemic was raging or how to avoid the horrid American schoolboy intent on destruction.

The reader remembers what had happened the last life, and though shades of familiarity remain, incidents chance, outcomes reverse, even individuals appear with altered aspects and personalities.  It may sound confusing.  It is not.  It is enthralling.  It’s one of those books you rush through to see what happens next and then slow down at the end to savor, hoping to postpone finishing it for another day.

Atkinsoatkinson-life_after_life-homen herself says: “People always ask you what a book is ‘about’ and I generally make something up as I have no idea what a book is about (it’s ‘about’ itself) but if pressed I think I would say Life After Life is about being English (on reflection perhaps that’s what all my books are about). Not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.”  http://www.kateatkinson.co.uk/dnld/resources/LifeAfterLifeNotes_848fc161a7df.pdf

  In addition to Ursula, there is an older Todd sister, the pragmatic Pamela, and three boys, only one of which holds much interest:  Teddy.  Teddy is the charming young boy who becomes the subject of Aunt Izzy’s series of books in Life After Life.  And ultimately, the primary subject of A God In Ruins.

Teddy becomes a bomber pilot, adopts a dog named Lucky who appears throughout Life After Life, and at the end of that book, goes out on a raid and is presumed dead.  A God In Ruins is Teddy’s more-traditionally-told tale.  Less than two short years after the publication of her monumental Life After Life, Atkinson published A God in Ruins.  Aside from the breathtaking feats of narrative derring-do she pulls off in both novels, simply consider the fact that the first is 544 pages and the second 480.

In A God in Ruins, Teddy is one of the 10% of RAF bombers who come home from the war.  He marries his childhood

British flight crew, courtesy BBC.

British flight crew, courtesy BBC.

companion Nancy Shawcross from just down the road and the two have one child, who despite the parents love for one another, is just about the most horrible character I remember reading:  Viola.  Mean, vain, narcissistic, closed-minded, sharp-tongued, vengeful.  Viola is a horrible daughter to Teddy and a more horrible mother to her children Sun (Sunny) and Moon (Bertie), born out of wedlock and in a commune.

Atkinson’s well-researched and breathtaking descriptions of the bombing runs, frankly had me at times skipping pages.  It’s gruesomely accurate.

The New York Times said:

IMG_1497A God in Ruins is a “sprawling, unapologetically ambitious saga that tells the story of postwar Britain through the microcosm of a single family, and you remember what a big, old-school novel can do. Atkinson’s book covers almost a century, tracks four generations, and is almost inexhaustibly rich in scenes and characters and incidents. It deploys the whole realist bag of tricks, and none of it feels fake or embarrassing. In fact, it’s a masterly and frequently exhilarating performance by a novelist who seems utterly undaunted by the imposing challenges she’s set for herself.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/books/review/kate-atkinsons-a-god-in-ruins.html

In tandem, the books would be a likely even more powerful read, with one reinforcing the other, a sly reminder here, a nod there.  Perhaps my project for Summer 2016.

Taken together, “Life After Life” and “A God in Ruins” present the starkest possible contrast. In the first book, there’s youth and a multitude of possible futures. In the second, there’s only age and decay, and a single immutable past. This applies not only to the characters, but to England itself, which is portrayed over and over as a drab and diminished place. The culprit is obvious — it’s the war itself, “the great fall from grace.”  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/books/review/kate-atkinsons-a-god-in-ruins.html

MENU

It would be conventional, I suppose, to come up with some Victory Garden food, or even some community husk/commune granola.  However, I think my menu will be left-overs.  Particularly for Life After Life.  Or not so much left-overs as the reappearances of food a la Ursula.

Twice Baked Potatoes

Turkey Curry

Roast Beef Sandwiches — made from homemade roast beef

 Bubble and Squeak — because it’s both English and leftover!

1/2 medium head cabbage, sliced
3 slices bacon, diced
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 cup cubed cooked ham
1 tablespoon butter
3 cups potatoes – baked, cooled and
thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon paprika
salt and pepper to taste
1. In a medium saucepan, cook cabbage in a small amount of water for about 5 minutes, or until tender. Drain, and set aside.
2. In a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, cook bacon and onion until onion is soft and bacon is cooked. Add ham, and cook until heated through. Add butter, then mix in the cooked cabbage and potatoes. Season with paprika, salt, and pepper. Cook until browned on bottom, turn, and brown again.

I also make a deconstructed bubble & squeak for my Boxing Day parties where I buy those tiny little smokies sausages and brown them in the oven until they are good and nearly crunchy.  And I bake tiny new potatoes until they are tender, then skewer one sausage and one potato each on a toothpick.  I’ve had native Brits tell me it’s their favorite Boxing Day treat ever.

MUSIC

We’ll Meet Again, a compilation album by Britain’s chief war songstress Vera Lynn, contains all of the classics including, We’ll Meet Again, The White Cliffs of Dover, Traveling Home, Dream, Harbour Lights, As Time Goes By.  But it doesn’t include her famous song, There’ll Always be an England and you might want to include that.

MOVIE CASTING

Ursula – Felicity Jones

Aunt Izzie – Keira Knightley

Teddy – Eddie Redmayne

Nancy — Emma Watson

Happy Reading & Eating!

Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in a 1478 copy[1] of a lost alchemical tract by Synesius.

Drawing by Theodoros Pelecanos, in a 1478 copy[1] of a lost alchemical tract by Synesius.