Jane Rusbridge’s ROOK is a wonderfully written and atmospheric novel rooted in the landscape and history of the village of Bosham and its surroundings on the Sussex coast. The expressive and emotional power of natural, temporal, musical, interpersonal, and mental rhythms and relations permeate Rusbridge’s narrative and prose. Nora is an ex-concert cellist whose return to her family home in Bosham is precipitated by a crisis which haunts the novel. She continues to teach and music rises in her mind in moments of stress in a manner reminiscent of Septimus Harding in The Warden. Nora’s increasingly frail, self-absorbed and time-dazed mother Ada seems to haunt and hate the house, at one point taking a croquet mallet to the French windows. The widow of an archaeologist buried alive whilst excavating, Ada slips in and out of an alternately Arcadian and regretted past, her confusion communicated in the liquid language which pervades ROOK, ‘Ada’s mind swam…creek water silted in the nooks and crannies of her mind and sometimes the sense of what she wanted to say or even think had washed away or sunk.’
The eponymous Rook, his name quite literal, is rescued as a baby by Nora from the attention of callous youths, and she nurtures him into a strapping adult. His presence emphasises the interpenetration of nature and the human sphere, as does the helplessness of the villagers in the face of that most rhythmic of phenomena: the tide. Nora’s maternal attitude to Rook also contrasts with the diminished relationship she has with Ada: ‘Rook’s eyes are closed. ‘Go to sleep, little one.’’ Nora’s delight when he finally caws and then flies is as deep as that one takes in the first words and steps of a child. Nora, of course, is lacking a parent:
Nora would like to ask her father if what drew him to archaeology was his preoccupation with time, and whether it is from him that she inherited her own strong and natural sense of rhythm, her body’s instinctive feel for time. She’d like to talk to him about the way the passing of time changes what we once believed to be truth or fact into something previously unknown.
The excavation of buried secrets, of a multi-layered and shifting past is a major theme of ROOK. Bosham’s church and the occupants of certain graves attract Jonny: a handsome documentary maker who arrives to research a programme about King Cnut and his illegitimate daughter, but who detects the possibility of a greater historical – and romantic – coup. This leads to fierce arguments over Bosham’s history, the villagers’ obligations to the past and present, and, centrally, the substance of history itself. The reaction of the village to Jonny is nicely captured by ROOK’s violent dislike for him. Jonny and Nora’s desire to know, to pin down some historical truth is at odds with the fluidity, literal and metaphorical, of the past and its muddy elements. Rusbridge’s allegiance to the allure of historical indeterminacy comes out strongly. A.L. Rowse’s oft-quoted sentiment seems apt, ‘History is a great deal closer to poetry than is generally realised: in truth, I think, it is in essence the same.’ Harry, a symbol of the land and authenticity throughout, puts it this way, ‘My point –’ Harry looks up at the ceiling, rubs his chin and sighs, ‘is the mystery. Way too big a loss, the mystery.’
A rhythm will take away, will, like the tide recede as well as return, and loss is a feature of ROOK. Rook has lost something for all that he gains in Nora’s care, Nora and her mother each have their own losses to face or retreat from, and the long-dead Edyth Swan-Neck’s loss is apparent from the opening pages set in the aftermath of a certain well-known battle. Her presence in Bosham is symbolised by the swans which glide through the water and across the borders of the Bayeux tapestry. Writing in the continuous present Rusbridge emphasises both the sheer immediacy of experience and the penetration of memory and the distant past. At times she approaches the visionary as characters slip into the past mid-thought, mid-action, without it being obvious where the divide came. Likewise certain thoughts take the shape of natural and material phenomena and things, as with Ada’s shifting water-way of a mind.
Rusbridge’s poetic phrasing and symbolic complexity renders the writing incantatory and impressionistic. ‘Slivers of sunlight bounce on ripples blown sideways by the breeze.’ Water takes on a significance reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s Water; that de-churched spirituality which bespeaks a connection with land and history is also echoed – perhaps ironically – in Larkin’s Church Going.
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
Language is vitally important in ROOK as an orientating and connecting tool. Certain words connect us to the quality of a historical awareness. Whilst reading one of her husband’s books Ada savours the ‘Anglo-Saxon words for mud: cledgy; sleech; slommocky. She mouths the sl and bl of them, shaping her tongue and lips around their texture. Stabble means to walk thick mud into the house. She likes the squelch and spread of the word, its peaks and smears.’ Such earthy thickening generates a wonderful atmosphere and occupation of landscape and culture, especially notable in the Saxon elements of the novel. ‘The year was dying: wind and wet leaves, a mist rolling in from the swan-rād.’ And yet, as Rusbridge makes clear, the mystery remains. She has Nora tell Jonny, ‘Motive tells us so much more about character than actions.’ But, of course, it is motive that is so often lost to history, thus generating that tension between the desire to know and its frustration by time’s passing. The connection is in the continuity of landscape, sea, birth, maturation, death: all of which underpin the distinctly jumbled affairs of the inhabitants of Bosham.
ROOK’s climax is sharply affecting and reaches deep into the core of the earth and the human life that persists on and then under it. I was very moved by it despite, or perhaps because of, the premonitions and parallels throughout the book. As a thematic and dramatic convergence it is very powerful and well-controlled. I loved the atmosphere and language of ROOK and recommend it wholeheartedly.
UPDATE: I forgot one!
A Box of Birds – Charles Fernyhough
A thriller set in the world of brain research investigating the clash between materialism and Freudian therapy, Fernyhough looks to investigate the kinds of explanation that can work in fiction, and in considerations of what it means to be human. On the basis of this pitch I supported the book on Unbound. I want to see how it works,
I’ll be posting a review of John Banville’s Ancient Light in the next few days, but in the meantime I thought I would post a selection of new books I’m looking forward to in the coming months, some of which have landed on my doormat recently. This is a very short non-exhaustive list which rather favours big names. Feel free to suggest others!
Toby’s Room – Pat Barker
The new novel by the author of the Regeneration Trilogy returns to World War One and roughly meshes with the events of Life Class which I was a little disappointed by. Word is that this one is very dark and very good indeed.
NW – Zadie Smith
After Keith Ridgway’s wonderful Hawthorn and Child another novel of London and its inhabitants which will be very different but, I hope, equally brilliant.
The City’s Son – Tom Pollock
Many years ago I went to the pub with Tom Pollock. I’m pretty sure he bought a round, so that’s in his favour. He also mentioned wanting to write. This very well previewed fantasy/YA novel set in a world of ‘monsters and miralces’ is one of the books I really wish I’d got hold of before release.
Rook – Jane Rusbridge
‘Look at the stars, Rook. Tell me what you know.’
Set in the village of Bosham on the Sussex coast, Jane Rusbridge’s second novel tackles buried secrets, history, memory, and the meaning of home.
Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure – Artemis Cooper
I simply adore Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the great individuals of the Twentieth Century. Soldier, traveller, linguist, and writer, this man was incredible. Amongst his wonderful books are the chronicles of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (as was) in the Thirties, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. The third and final installment of that trilogy is being put together by Cooper after this book. I am very excited. See also his books about Greece, where he lived for much of his life: Mani, Roumeli, and a collection titled Words of Mercury. I’m saying nothing…
Train Dreams – Denis Johnson
If you haven’t read any Denis Johnson then you simply must. Go and get Tree of Smoke. You’ll thank me. This short novel of the American West is one of the books that was in the running for the unawarded Pulitzer Prize.
Merivel – Rose Tremain
Following on from Tremain’s 1989 Restoration, Merivel returns to the eponymous courtier and physician in middle age and finds him in a more reflective, but ever mirthful mood. As he journeys across Europe everything seems to go wrong except, I hope, Tremain’s writing.