Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee

The Basics:
The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee
St. Martin's Press
New Adult, Mainstream
Published July 8, 2014
Source: Received via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Why I picked up this book:

I liked the cover.


"My name is Jude. And because of Law, Hey and the Obscure, they thought I was a boy."

Jude is twenty-one when she flies in a private plane to Sark, a tiny carless Channel Island and the last place in Europe to abolish feudalism. She’s been hired for the summer to tutor a rich local boy named Pip. But when Jude arrives, the family is unsettling. Pip is awkward, overly literal, and adamant he doesn't need a tutor, and upstairs, his enigmatic mother Esmé casts a shadow over the house.
Enter Sofi: the family's holiday cook, a magnetic, mercurial Polish girl with appalling kitchen hygiene, who sings to herself and sleeps naked. When the father of the family goes away on business, Pip's science lessons are replaced by midday rosé and scallop-smuggling, and summer begins. Soon something powerful starts to touch the three together.
But those strange, golden weeks on Sark can't last forever. Later, in Paris, Normandy and London, they find themselves looking for the moment that changed everything.Compelling, sensual, and lyrical, The Last Kings of Sark by Rosa Rankin-Gee is a tale of complicated love, only children and missed opportunities, from an extraordinary new writer.
My thoughts:

The Last Kings of Sark is a contemporary, mainstream novel in that literary vein that's so popular these days. It's a book that begs for an essay, that demands the reader delve beyond the surface words and consider the reliability of narrators, the use of literary techniques, the symbolism of it all.

I'm divided when it comes to books like this. Sometimes I find them annoyingly pretentious - I want the book to get out of it's own way so that it can tell me the story instead of fretting so much about how the story is communicated. Other times, I'm delighted by the play of words, the cleverness of the rise and fall of the dialogue and the texture of it all. With the latter cases, I yearn to sit and talk it all out with the other students in my university English classes of years past.

Shall we see how The Last Kings of Sark fared?

This book is split into three parts.

The first is a first-person narration of past events, a fond remembrance (for the most part) of a summer spent on the island of Sark, when Jude (the narrator) worked as a tutor for a wealthy family. At the age of 21, Jude's only five years older than Pip, the boy she's hired to teach, and only two years older than Sofi, the cook who has also been hired on for the summer. The three of them bond as only young people can when faced with little to do and all the freedom in the world to do it.

The second part moves forward through the years that follow, skipping between the three characters, shifting from first to third person narration.

The final part has Jude revisiting Sark, narrating her trip in a letter, and sort of spelling out a sort of meaning for the novel, I think. It's an epilogue that underlines a message for the reader.

So I wrote a review for this book, trying to convey the languid haziness of it all. For me, this book was a series of snapshots. We get these moments that are presented in full colour, with lots of details, and then the narration throws out some impressions of what happens in between the moments. Some times, as in the case of filling in the summer, the reader is asked to participate in a shared understanding of what an idyllic summer during one's late teens and early twenties is like, and other times, the reader is given clues in the snapshot that suggest what has passed before and what will come after.

The Last Kings of Sark was successful in making me complicit in the telling of the story. I easily formed my own idea of what those summer days were like, and I looked for the clues and filled in details where they were lacking based on what I imagined should have brought the characters to each particular moment in time.

The book screamed nostalgia at me - there were references directly to it in the epilogue, but also that sense of Jude looking back in part one across many years, and in the direct references to things such as Polaroids. There's a filter to everything that feels nostalgic - though of course there are tense and uncomfortable moments.

Ultimately, for me, this book was wildly successful at appealing to my intellect. I want to discuss this one! I want to wax academically on the techniques used to convey various bits and bobs. I spent a good twenty minutes talking to myself as though delivering an undergraduate lecture on the merits of the book while I cooked dinner. However, I found the book less satisfying as pure entertainment. I found the ending unsatisfying - not unhappy, per se, but not all that I was hoping it would be. I think for it to be a fun read, I needed more details of the story itself across the book. This would have ruined the overall effect of the book, so... yeah.

Bottom line:

This is a story that I think you'll either love or hate. It asks the reader to participate in the storytelling, and really engage with the material. I think it would make an excellent book club book, or selection for an essay.

The Last Kings of Sark scores high for me because I really engaged with the book and I'm bursting with desire to analyse and discuss it.

Last note: while marketed to me as a new adult book, I would not read this expecting it to fit my preconceptions of that genre.

4.5 stars
For fans of smart books, memory, nostalgia, mainstream lit, modern tales, elegant novels

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