Published in 2012, Sophie Coulombeau’s Rites tells the story of four teenagers growing up in Manchester. Fourteen years old and bored, they make a pact to lose their virginity at the same time, and formulate a complex plan to hide their actions from their parents. Fifteen years on, we hear from over ten different narrators the story of how it all went wrong.
When you give a brief plot summary like that, it sounds a little messed up. Which is the point, of course. But I just want to make clear now that this isn’t really a novel about sex, although the crux of the plot revolves around it. It’s not a coming of age story, and it’s not a teenage romance. It’s a story about being young and messed up. Or, more accurately (because the adult characters in the novel are hardly more grown up than their kids), it’s a story about being human and messed up. It’s also a story about truth – or, more accurately, a story about the lack of it.
After all, in this novel we’re offered the testimony of various individuals, all of which seem to be a bit at odds with each other. We never quite know what to believe.
The novel’s narration – or narrations, perhaps I should say – is its strongest feature. The characters address you as a reader personally, forcing you into the role of an increasingly failing detective. And every character has a distinctive voice. This impressed me more than anything. Were you to take away the narrator’s names above their sections half way through, I still think you’d be able to tell pretty quickly who was talking, which is to me always a sign of good writing. It’s the voices of the various narrators that, to me, brought the characters and the novel to life, and changed it from a decent novel to an excellent one.
What I also like about the characters in Rites is that I don’t like any of them. Well, except for Father Patrick. I know it may seem strange to approve of a novel having next to no likable characters. However, for some novels – take Wuthering Heights, for example – a stock of unlikable character is precisely what makes them great. It gives a novel an unnerving tone, something that can’t help but stay with you. I’m not saying that none of the characters in Rites are sympathetic, because they are, but they’re not likable, they’re not nice, and so reading the novel is a bit unsettling, because half the time you don’t want to care about these people and sort of do, and the other half you think you should feel sorry for them and find it next to impossible.
Take, Nick, for example. Of the four main characters – Day, Rachel, Lizzie and Nick – it’s Nick who on paper I would like the most. He is, on paper, the least objectionable of these characters. And yet, because of the voice given to him, because of the way he talks about the others, about what happened, about himself, and because of what the others let slip about him, you find it simply impossible to warm to him.
This isn’t a complaint though. Excepting Father Patrick there isn’t a single character I like, but equally there isn’t a single character who you don’t at least in some way understand, who doesn’t seem in some way human. All in all, what I’m trying to get at is that although you don’t really like the characters, that their characterisation is absolutely superb.
I want to show you what I mean. Take this passage:
You know what I could never stand about Lizzie? She says like all the time… I’m, like, completely sure of it. It’s as if, when she speaks, she fears complete commitment to anything. She must always have the disclaimer of like. As if somebody might come back and hold her to whatever she said.
Whoever thought a character’s slang could be so brilliantly analysed?
Rites is not going to be my favourite novel of all time. I am not going to regal everyone with how much I loved this or that character, or how much I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. After all, ‘enjoy’ would be the wrong word. ‘Like’ would be the wrong word. And yet nor am I going to forget it in any hurry. At the risk of turning my blog into a cliché, this is the sort of book that stays with you. It’s a clever, unsettling and remarkable novel.
Greatest strength: Without a doubt the character’s voices.
Greatest weakness: For me, the ending. I haven’t mentioned this in the body of the blog as I can’t really explain without spoiling it, but there were one or two things about the ending that bothered me. I felt a little let down, or maybe frustrated, with a few of the characters. I’m not sure that the novel ought to have had a different ending, but I kind of wish it had.
Let’s finish on a quote: Damien Brady was a closed book, because he didn’t have a truth. He was like, I don’t know, like an onion. Made up of a million layers. But with no core. No heart. No discoverable truth. What he did have was a voice.
Next week: Where Rainbows End, by Cecelia Ahern