Book review: The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins

(cover image courtesy UQP)

 

We live in an often cruel and unforgiving world.

Thankfully in the midst of all the Darwinian madness and the transgressions of fallible humanity, both our own and those of our fellow human beings, there are kind and generous people who understand that what might be needed is less caustic censure and unforgiving discipline and a little more love and understanding.

It may sound woefully naive and insipid but in Robert Lukin’s brilliantly good debut novel The Everlasting Sunday, a title which eludes to the endless, breathlessly good possibilities that day holds in store, there’s a real muscularity and truthfulness to the idea that all people, including “troubled boys” who have transgressed a multitude of boundaries, is the chance to discover life’s promise on their own terms.

To Radford, our eyes and ears on the bold and somewhat quirkily shambolic social experiment that is the Manor, a home for troubled youth out in the wilds of the English countryside, that’s not exactly the first impression he gets off the director Teddy, other staff like Lillian and Manny, and his fellow “inmates”, none of whom seem to be on any kind of set plan or well-scripted path to anywhere in particular.

“Almost a week has turned over: each day had brought not a sense of understanding but an understanding not to search for sense. When he [Radford] asked how things operated in the Manor – timetables, lessons, chores, responsibilities – he would be met with reluctant, ponderous answers or more often none at all. No rules, only customs. A conscious vagueness inhabited the place whereby time was a thing to be occupied: an enemy’s pillbox on a battlefield.” (P. 41)

At first, the Manor, all decaying innards and rundown shabby chic, seems like an idiosyncratic, highly-civilised Lord of the Flies sprung to life, where the boys roam in groups, learning is haphazard and erratically earnest, fights occasionally break out and diversions come in many forms, including drunken trips to a nearby cemetery where a random person is picked each time to be eulogised in a comical fashion that says more about boys like Radford and his troubled but gregarious friend West than it does about the anonymous objects of their temporary attention.

While no one openly discusses what brought them to this place – it is unofficially but universally agreed that you only divulge that secret if you’re so inclined – with most of the boys (in reality late teens and slightly up) choosing to keep their sins well under wraps.

The director of the facility Teddy is never inclined to push anyone anyway – for him the Manor is all bucolic learning, ad hoc discoveries of murmurations of starlings or the uncovering of historical trees – a place where, as he explains to Radford many years later, his charges could experience “a brief truce … [a] little peace, that you might carry with you.”

In reflecting on that time in the early ’60s where the Manor was alive with peaceful possibility, goodnatured intent and even so, some of the worst of humanity (despite its director’s best efforts), Teddy hoped for much but feels, as he confesses to an older, wiser Radford, that he has “failed”.

 

(image courtesy UQP)

 

Radford, blessed with hindsight, disagrees with his now-good friend.

He points out that he has a circle of good friends, and presumably a sustaining career, one birthed at the Manor when Manny, a handyman and general errand runner, taught him the ins-and-outs of electrical work, an interest Radford didn’t know he harboured nor an aptitude he knew he possessed until it was awoken him.

Wiser and more self-aware than people like West and Foster, whose destructive bond only comes to full fruition late in the book, Radford, though drawn into the largely benignly chaotic machinations of the Manor to a large degree, remains a studious observer, a young man who benefits from Teddy’s unorthodox approach even as others, too troubled by their own demons fail to do so.

It is through Radford and his willingness to ask questions and consider life, even in a passing way, that stands him apart from West, a young man who comes as breezy and a bon vivant but is secretly torn apart by familial events beyond his control or ability to deal with.

“They went closer until everything above and before them was only stick and bird. The sound was incredible. Radford found himself beginning to laugh in the union of nerves and appreciation. He kept turning back to Teddy for permission, like a toddler approaching a beach’s waterline. Teddy swung his stick on wards.” (P. 168)

The magic of The Everlasting Sunday is that Lukins, writing in a blissfully poetic fashion that reads beautifully but never feels pretentious or artfully staged, invests his laidback prose, and unhurried narrative with some pretty powerful truths about human nature, the benefits of love and kindness if you’re open to them (if not, they glide off like water off the proverbial) and the way one person can come alive in the same environment that leaves another untouched and unyielding.

While there is sometimes an emotional distancing to proceeding and it’s hard to feel fully connected to all the characters, there are moments, particularly during interactions between Radford and West, and Radford and Teddy that you feel the exquisite ache of pain and possibility and come to understand, in real and visceral ways, how easily a person can tip one way or the other.

That Radford will emerge out the other side benefiting from Teddy and Manny and Lillian’s guiding hands is clear, but even so, the journey he undertakes in that one season in the Manor is fraught and it’s not always certain that our protagonist will find his way through as successfully as events seem to indicate.

That he does, and that others don’t, mirrors life itself where despite the guiding hand and love of caring if erratic souls like Teddy, not everyone has a happy ending.

The strength of The Everlasting Sunday and Lukins approach to his unexpectedly captivating material – at first the novel seems too low key to be too powerful but appearances can, and are, deceiving – is that for all its quirks and wonderfully unusual moments, its Boys Own scenes of camaraderie and enmity, is that it perfectly articulates, and celebrates, the fact that bleak and unforgiving as life can be, that great possibility awaits for those willing and able to make the most of it.

 

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