There is no hiding the matter that in my opinion. The novels, as well as other fiction, published in Britain over the last few decades have been disappointing. If Ian McEwan is our most celebrated author then, in terms of serious literature and not Richard & Judy holiday books, we are in trouble. In my opinion there are a few shining exceptions to this trend which come from the fringes of the British Isles. Ali Smith, from Scotland – Anne Enright from Ireland and perhaps Amis and Ackcroyd from London. Because of this, it is exciting to see a new English novelist under thirty beginning her academic as well as literary career here in York.
The aforementioned Ali Smith is the novelist that springs to mind, if a comparison was to be made to the author of Rites, Sophie Coulombeau. Her novel splits itself, as Smith’s The Accidental does, and we are faced with the different perspectives and preoccupations of characters looking back at one incident and time. The setting appears normal enough, a close in the suburbs of Manchester around the summer of 1997. That year of monumental change in British politics is left aside and instead Coulombeau zooms in on the changes and rites of passage felt by four children in their mid-teens. The playing field is, of course, sex. The game, as all of us at that age played, is how to get it. Damien, Rachel, Lizzie and Nick are the organisers of a virginity pact which makes up the very centre of the narrative. Except that the reader encounters these characters ten of fifteen years later, as their various lives have played out into adulthood and their remembrances have been tempered or stirred by the distance. Though they each live differently now, Damien cannot escape the frisson he feels and needs by playing up the scandal and taking on the role of a minor local celebrity. He makes up for his comparative poverty and unfortunate childhood by playing the wistful raconteur, long words being used like plasters to cover his many insecurities and failings. Ultimately, he is a child playing at being an adult. This goes someway in explaining his use of the phrase ‘I shit thee not’, he is simultaneously mockingly Shakespearean and old fashioned mocking.
The other characters, including the adults which surround the story, quickly develop into more thoughtful portrayals as we see and feel the angst and anxiety of those teenage years unfold. Father Patrick and DC Featherstone reflect the theme of confession well, with their differing ideas of what truth is and how to access it. The larger question about the nature of truth and memory flows in and out of the main narrative. The event constantly hangs over the reader, peeping in and out of the tales each character spins with different intensity. The role of the Catholic faith in the narrative obviously heightens the emotions felt by each voice, so too does the accusation of rape, but it is the lives that stretched out after the event that becomes most interesting to the reader.
It is a charming first novel which obviously draws a great deal of unpublished experience. Real promise emanates from every page for an author in the early stages of her career. Any teething problems, I felt, are mitigated by my anticipation of the possibility of a future novel where I am sure Coulombeau will blossom, rising to join the ranks of our most celebrated British authors.