Amy Walters reviews The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins
The Everlasting Sunday
by Robert Lukins
Reviewed by AMY WALTERS
Robert Lukins’ debut novel follows seventeen-year-old Radford as he commences at Goodwin Manor, “a place for boys who had been found by trouble” (19). The Manor is a dilapidated institution of reform in the Shropshire countryside, which the Queensland-raised Lukins has said was inspired by an old house he encountered while working as a postman in Shropshire. In the tradition of the British boarding school, the students are referred to by surname. To call it a school, however, is a bit of a stretch; as the narrator notes with characteristic obliqueness: “There was no schooling, but things like lessons” (42). The Manor is overseen by Teddy, whose good intentions are undercut by his tendency towards depression and alcoholism. While Government inspectors nose around from time to time, this intrusion of authority only serves to highlight the boys’ marginalised position relative to society at large.
This sense of isolation is heightened due to the novel’s backdrop of the Big Freeze: the winter of 1962-63, when snow started falling on Boxing Day and continued for ten weeks. In her recent book Frostquake, Juliet Nicolson argued that during this period Britain underwent “a process of incubation” whereby “society was preparing for the moment when a different landscape would emerge. This was a winter in which despair and hardship both personal and political contrasted with a burgeoning sense of liberation and opportunity. It was a winter in which the structural pillars of class and entitlement … were starting to fragment and crumble.” (#)
The tension in the novel largely derives from this sense of liminality: as the outside world re-emerges, will the boys be rehabilitated, or will they enter adulthood in their current state of iniquity? If the atmosphere is anything to go by, the odds do seem stacked against them. Inanimate objects are imbued with a menacing quality: the piano delivers “a clap of untuned thunder” (26) and, as Radford is driven to the Manor by his uncle, he sees the city “effecting a cowardly retreat” (3) through the car’s rear window. Snuffy, a former Goodwin resident who returns for a visit after being released from prison, is a sad portent of a life that may be to come. Winter, similarly, is a character, and the boys its plaything: “From high above, where fates were decided, these boys appeared as helpless as they truly were. Winter’s show was so great and rare it too could only wonder at what it was getting away with. These lonely humans here, these children, were like currants to be pressed into the cake’s surface.” (53)
For a novel set on the cusp of the counter-culture revolution, the prose style is reminiscent of a nineteenth century novel. Granted, the newsreaders still wore suits to read the news in 1962, but some of Lukins’ narration is more suited to a Victorian novel than one set just over half a century ago. Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella On Chesil Beach was set in the summer of 1962, just before the Big Freeze, and manages to capture the sense of a bygone era without resorting to florid description. “This was still the era,” McEwan writes, “… when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure.” (6) There is a sense in which the two protagonists, Florence and Edward, are sandwiched between those who fought in the war, and a more liberated generation to come. Florence gleans worrying details of what she can expect on her wedding night from a “modern, forward-looking handbook” (7) while Edward feels obliged to accept a job in her father’s business. As they receive their dinner in their hotel room, they are conscious of the old men downstairs who are “filling their pipes for one last time that day” and waiting for the main bulletin on the wireless, “a wartime habit they would never break.” (24)
Whereas McEwan’s prose is crisp and sophisticated, The Everlasting Sunday is full of convoluted passages, which often read as overwrought and artificial. This passage is indicative of some of the contortions Lukins devises:
“… Radford tried to remember the last time his hand had been held. Now the man added a second palm to the act such that he held both of Radford’s. Having completed this ligature he resumed motionlessness.” (12)
It becomes apparent, however, that Lukins is genuinely taking his cue from Victorian literature. Upon arriving at Goodwin Manor, Radford muses to himself that the place is “[a]ll too Tom Brown and the neat perils of boarding school. Perhaps Foster would play the thick-necked bully and there would be a dastardly teacher to make unstuck. All too cute.” (34) This is a reference to Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes which gave a semi-autobiographical account of life at Rugby Public School, and spawned an entire genre of fiction for boarding boys. Unlike Rugby, Goodwin Manor is not a bastion of privilege, but it fulfils a similar function to the public school: the making or breaking of adolescent boys. Although on the surface they are capable of scraping along together in relative peace, sharing beer, cigarettes and unauthorised visits to a nearby cemetery, the threat of violence is never far away. Radford is instantly attuned to the taught atmosphere of his new home, making a “commitment [to] expose nothing of himself to this house.” Dilapidated and foreboding, Goodwin Manor is also a nod to the Gothic, with the plot haunted mainly by the mystery of Radford’s crime, which is cleverly revealed in the final pages.
The Everlasting Sunday is a layered and complex debut. While at times the floridity of the prose can be an impediment, reading the novel with the Gothic in mind helps to put its melodramatic overtones in context. The subject matter, already curiously old-fashioned, is oddly devoid of contemporary resonance, but Lukins’ sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of the plight of vulnerable boys against whom the odds have always been stacked transcends its archaic posturing. Though the thaw comes for the nation, the reader suspects Radford’s emotional life may always be frozen.
Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Oxford University Press, 1989 .
Ian McEwan, 2008, On Chesil Beach, Vintage, London.
Juliet Nicolson, Frostquake. Vintage Publishing, 2021.