The Rocks, (2015) by Peter Nichols, begins with an ending. Gerald Rutledge and Lulu Davenport, both elderly and connected by some sort of terrible bitterness, go tumbling together over a rocky ledge to their deaths in the Mediterranean. Words are first exchanged between them―an angry, spiteful, strangled mutual shelling―and because this is the book’s opening four pages, we have no context to help us understand them; nothing but a place, Mallorca*, a date and an ironic title for this part of the story:
[*this is the spelling used by the author, rather than Majorca]
And so begins a novel that winds backward through time, leaping section by section from year to pivotal year: 2005―1995―1983―1970―1966―1956―1951―1948―2005, like a strange countdown to understanding. Long enough for three generations to come and go; long enough for many lives to play themselves out.
The novel’s geography mirrors the fault lines of its plot. First, there is the Villa Los Roques (The Rocks of the title) on Mallorca, which Lulu runs and where she has lived all of her adult life: a modest hotel that grows into a bijou resort/hideaway and habitual destination for German and British tourists (and other strays) during the sixty years covered by the novel.
The second is C’an Cabrer, also on Mallorca, which is the name of Gerald’s home and olive grove, a hardy distance from The Rocks, and a place where he eventually settled, brokenhearted, a few years after his wartime service with the Royal Navy.
There is also Morocco where, in 1970, a fledgling romance between Gerald’s daughter Aegina and Lulu’s son Luc is exposed to harsh reality.
In the summary of The Rocks provided in the Library catalogue, you’ll find references to the “brightly lit Mediterranean” and to an “irresistibly sunny” and “romantic page-turner”. This isn’t at all how I saw the book or what I felt while reading its mesmerizing story.
Instead, what I discovered right under Mallorca’s sun was something less breezy but far more captivating.
Lulu Davenport is the novel’s most indecipherable character, and it is she who introduces much of the novel’s tension.
Throughout most of The Rocks, as the narrative works its way backward to a watershed moment in 1948, Lulu is an almost alien creature: a cold, prematurely white-haired beauty with ravenous appetites and no capacity for tenderness. She is also a fey and detached mother to Luc.
Around her orbits a cast of indolent characters with names like Dominick Clelland, a frequent visitor; Tom, Milly and their son Cassian Ollorenshaw (it is they who help Lulu acquire The Rocks), Hungarian film producer Gábor Szabó and his French wife Véronique, and Sarah Bavister (a regular Rocks guest).
They are not so much friends as they are hangers-on, many of whom appear to have developed mutually beneficial “arrangements” with Lulu. At The Rocks, there is more than a hint of post-war moral exhaustion, of corruption and decadence; even, with such characters as Dominick and Cassian, of perfidy.
This is not a benign environment in which to raise a child, and Lulu’s son Luc carries its burden into his adult life.
Both a walking distance and a world away lives Gerald, who acts as the moral centre of the story. We learn that Gerald and Lulu were
briefly married just after the war, and we sense that the catastrophic dissolution of that bond is the source of the quiet sadness that he carries with him still. The beautiful Aegina―who is two years younger than Luc― is the product of Gerald’s second marriage to Paloma, a local woman.
While the possibility of romantic love between Aegina and Luc is a strong and gripping theme through the narrative, the true romance of The Rocks is found in Gerald Rutledge’s heart.
If you’ve seen the work of British actor Bill Nighy in such movies as About Time, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Pride, then you have seen Gerald as I imagined him. The same fair hair. The same lanky, emaciated frame. The same quiet, unassuming decency.
Gerald’s heart is sufficiently large to hold many loves, as was the heart of his hero, Odysseus. Before Mallorca, in Gerald’s life, there was the romance of the sea. An expert sailor, he had spent several years retracing the mythical journey of Odysseus, hoping to verify its plausibility, a quest that led to the publication of his book: The Way to Ithaca: A Sailor’s Discovery of the Route of Homer’s Odyssey.
But Gerald is willing to give everything up for the women he loves: for Lulu, for Paloma and for their daughter, Aegina.
At The Rocks, where promises are rarely kept and love seems destined to crash against the Spanish cliffs, Gerald Rutledge’s sacrifices kindle hope.
“Gerald was English, a race famous for its sailors; he had sailed from England, itself a feat, and he had sailed the little Nereid without an engine all over the Mediterranean with one hand on the tiller and a book in the other, and it was the last thing Rafael could imagine that Gerald could ever lose his yacht, even in a storm―but there had been no storms.”
Other works by Peter Nichols available at the Library:
Evolution’s Captain (2003)
Sea Change: Alone Across the Atlantic in a Wooden Boat (1997), a memoir
A Voyage for Madmen (2001)