The Last Kings of Sark is a darkly bittersweet novel. The debut of Durham graduate Rosa Rankin-Gee, it tells the story of Jude, freshly graduated from university and taking a summer job tutoring the son of a rich family on the channel island of Sark. Quickly realising the sixteen year old Pip needs little tutoring and beginning a friendship with the teenage cook, Sofi, hired for the summer as well, the three roam the island, relishing their freedom. This constitutes the first part of the novel, what was originally a novella that won the Shakespeare and Company book shop Paris Literary Prize, and it’s easy to see this in the gorgeousness of its fictional architecture and the sense of fragility it has by the end; a fragility that proves to be all too real in the novel’s second and third parts.
The strength of this fragility (a beautifully oxymoronic effect) is created by the delicacy of the prose. The novel opens with a pitch-perfect capture of the surrealism of flying in a light aircraft as Jude sets out for Sark: ‘when we started accelerating along the runway, I didn’t think we were going fast enough, but then we stepped up into the air, shaky, like it was just a jump, and gravity would remember us. But somehow the trees got further away, and two fields became four, five, fifteen, countryside.’ It continues in this precise and fluid style, especially in clever flourishes such as the ‘sky was as white as this page’. This makes the island seem at once vivid and somewhat ephemeral, as if it is being half-remembered in a dream.
In this way, the style works perfectly in capturing a fleeting experience of youth. The novel is always aware of its characters being young and how important this is to how they experience their months on the island. Later, when Sofi is beginning her life in Paris, she finds ‘what, from the films, [she] had imagined being this age would feel like’ and this self-consciousness of what youth is supposed to be like is present throughout. With the luxury of free days and everything paid for, Sofi, Pip and Jude fill their time with everything from drunken nighttime bike rides to scallop smuggling in a sort of young adult equivalent of a school summer holiday.
The source of this money, however, provides an uneasy undercurrent during the novel’s first section on Sark. From the awkward conversation with the francophobic pilot during the flight in ‘you can’t trust the French — that’s not racist. That’s fact’ petty prejudices linger. Pip’s father, Eddy, seems almost transported from a different era when the British Empire was still going strong, creating a microclimate of class hierarchy in his house. Sofi is banished to eat alone in the kitchen when he is home for dinner, explaining to his son ‘Sofi’s Polish . . . She understands’ (Sofi is from Ealing). The brilliance of Rankin-Gee’s handling of this is in its delicacy. Eddy’s brother Caleb is perhaps more cartoonish in his repulsiveness, but Eddy himself comes across as a fairly average man who simply acts like a prat when he dutifully mimics a culture he has internalised. That this everyday bigotry can sit so comfortably alongside Pip’s maturation, Jude’s first adventure in the world, and Sofi’s larger than life confidence is part of what makes the novel so bittersweet and believable.
By the end of the first section, the novel is entirely satisfying and in retrospect you wish that it had been released as the novella that only went as far as that point, but this is no criticism. After the summer on the island the novel begins to speed up like a film reel out of control, cutting fast between different segments of the three characters’ lives and the luxuriousness of this ‘coming of age’ experience is completely cast aside. All three make it to Paris, or at least to France, at some point, as they promised themselves and each other they would on Sark, but simply being in this romanticised place does not guarantee anything. Instead, they find the mundanity and random tragedies of ordinary life, and experiencing this with them makes you desperate to crawl back into the happy simplicity of their summer on Sark.
The courage to go beyond the romantic ‘coming of age’ moment into the disappointments of real life is what elevates The Last Kings of Sark above an ordinary, competent debut novel. It makes the earlier events even more believable as an isolated, all too short experience in contrast to what follows, as well as bringing the characters to life further in their struggles through their twenties. Jude may be the protagonist and Sofi the life of the novel, but Pip is perhaps the most moving character, shy and good natured and just as vulnerable to random quirks of fate for all his privilege. One of the most powerful moments of the novel comes when Jude drunkenly calls Pip ‘just a boy’ in response to Caleb’s vulgar goading, and it is a testament to Rankin-Gee’s insight that this scene is exactly as painful and awkward as it sounds.
If there is a message to The Last Kings of Sark it is not a pleasant one. Youth fades and life intrudes, but there is hope in the end that you can eventually find your way in the adult world just as you can in the adolescent one. The memory of a simpler time, one that feels like it will last forever but ends up being all too brief, is powerfully brought to life, but in reaching beyond this Rankin-Gee shows that she is not a novelist who is satisfied with delusions of nostalgia. As a novel for those about to graduate, as Rankin-Gee called it, it celebrates the time when we are kings, even if we do not realise it, and stresses its value in the times when we are not.