Review by Maya Osborne
The Last Kings of Sark is Rosa Rankin-Gee’s debut novel, a coming-of-age story, or rather, a novel about growing up and the point at which the title of “Grown-Up” is achieved (arguably it isn’t).Three wandering adolescents cautiously negotiate teetering liminal spaces as they adventure through a sun-soaked haze of wine at noon and breezy bike rides. The first two thirds of the book are set on Sark, a tiny Channel Island with a population of about six hundred, whilst the final third follows the characters’ discrete existences post-Sark. Arguably alluding to the book’s structure, Jude observes how ‘Beginnings are always slower,’ (p. 35), and indeed the former part of the book is undoubtedly more languorous than the latter, with its snapshot chapters. Rankin-Gee meanders across this latter half a little haphazardly from third to first person narrative, although this might be read positively as elliptical slippage.
Commencing in the first person, we are introduced to the voice of Jude, who arrives in Sark for the summer to act as tutor to sixteen-year-old Pip. Her name instantly sparks confusion – ‘Jude’s a man,’ (p. 13) states Pip, leaving Jude bemused, as though she might have ‘slipped through a rip and walked into the wrong world.’ Touching on Butlerian notions of identity as performed through gendered nomenclature, Rankin-Gee observes aspects of female subordination. We are introduced to Sofi, the family’s Polish cook (not actually from Poland: from ‘EA-ling’, p. 19) – a beautiful and mouthy nineteen-year-old who is the object of much sexual desire. During a drunken dinner party, Pip’s uncle remarks to hisfather,Eddy, that it must be difficult for him ‘to control [himself] with something like that around.’ (p. 135) Sofi is even stripped of her gender (‘something like that’), and the objectification of lower class women by upper class men is shown in stark relief. The dinner becomes a meat market as the affluent public school-ers give themselves free reign to ogle the Polish-by-way-of-Ealing Sofi.
The first part of the book slowly maps out the growing friendship of the Jude, Sofi and Pip trio, intense whilst remaining sparse in action and culminating in a somehow inevitable sexual encounter. These formative youthful days cast a shadow over the characters’ lives several years on, in the latter part of the book, which, as we see, affects them in different ways. There are times when the minutely descriptive language seems more like embellishment than necessary detail, but Rankin-Gee’s ability to observe the subtler aspects of her characters’ lives is impressive. For example, when Jude is hungover: ‘I saw the world through the glass I’d drunk from. Softer edges, separate, still slightly more shine than there should be.’
At the very beginning of the book we are told that, ‘If this were a film, I would want it to start with leaves, and light coming through them,’ (p. 3) and overall The Last Kings of Sark does present itself as the literary equivalent of an indie film sun-specked montage. We are drenched in nostalgia, Sark’s beaches and salty warm winds, but somehow this vividness of place comes at the expense of character realism. Rankin-Gee depicts the island in HD clarity, and yet I never quite felt convinced of Jude, Sofi or Pip, and their various states of not-quite-Grown-Up.