Sunday, January 20, 2013

Review: Rites by Sophie Coulombeau

Rites is the debut novel of phD student Sophie Coloumbeau; the first winner of Route Publishing’s “Next Great Novelist award” it tells the story of four catholic teenagers growing up together and deciding to make a pact.  A pact to lose their virginity.  A pact which goes terribly wrong.  The likes of Philip Pullman has described the book as “Terrific.  A story that’s intriguing, puzzling, and entirely gripping.”

The story is told in retrospect.  Each of the four, now grown up, looks back on the events of that evening and gives their account of what happened as though they were speaking to an outsider; telling the story to somebody who wasn’t there – the reader.  There is occasional input from the teenagers parents or bystanders but the narrative is focused on the friends: two boys and two girls, Day, Rachel, Nick, and Lizzie how their relationships changed so dramatically when Lizzie may, or may not, have changed her mind about the pact.  Did she or didn’t she say ‘No.’

The novel is anything but a black and white event of an evening.  The cover is the perfect analogy; different coloured threads spanning the whole book, sometimes crossing over, but largely going in different directions.  This is a collection of people’s opinions, looking back many years later, at an event which wasn’t easy to define at the time, let alone when you’re trying to remember.  In what could have been a particularly uncomfortable story to tell; Coloumbeau tells it perfectly – or should I say imperfectly.  The reader doesn’t know who to believe, who to like, what actually happened, each version of events is slightly different from the last – from the cause of some bruises to the colour of their favourite ice lollies.  The reader can take nothing for certain.

Although the novel is primarily about one evening’s events – the lead up and aftermath, it doesn’t get boring, as each character tells their side, and the smallest discrepancy in their testament highlights the lack of narrative.  There isn’t anybody telling you who to believe, who to like, as each chapter is short and snappy – not allowing you to get too attached to one character or version of events before you hear the next one.
She manages to both have teenagers and adults conveyed through the same voice.  These are adults looking back on their teenage self and yet the same problems still annoy them.  The slightest change in allegiance, the flakiness of the young characters can have devastating effects which can be felt immediately at the time as much as when they’re older and looking back at the situation.   All of which makes me agree wholeheartedly with Philip Pullman's description of the novel as 'intriguing, puzzling, and entirely gripping.'
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