The winter of 1962–63 was one of England’s coldest on record. Also known as the Big Freeze of 1963, it brought with it unusually large snow drifts, left icicles hanging off houses, and caused lakes and rivers to freeze over. It is in the midst of this unforgiving winter that Robert Lukins has set his debut novel, The Everlasting Sunday. Seventeen-year-old Radford is sent away from his family to Goodwin Manor, a boarding school for young men who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Almost immediately, Radford is accepted by the other boys in the Manor as one of their kind, and is taken under the wing of his highly confident peer, West. All the boys at the Manor are troubled – their pasts have damaged them, and loom beneath the surface of their day to day lives. When an ex-resident of Goodwin Manor returns, he disrupts the relative harmony the boys have been living in, and causes irreparable damage to the refuge they have constructed for themselves.
One of the most striking aspects of this novel is the winter itself. Lukins has cast the Big Freeze as a character as much as he has Radford or Teddy. The cold drives the movements of the characters in the novel, at times physically confining them. The winter is omnipresent, and there is little anyone can do as it freezes everything from the milk on doorsteps to the river Thames. The name of this novel is extremely fitting – the oppressive cold has suspended these boys in a particular moment, and it seems neverending.
The winter is omnipresent…the oppressive cold has suspended these boys in a particular moment, and it seems neverending.
At the centre of the novel is the friendship that develops between Radford, West and the other boys. While the various situations the boys have come from are unclear, Lukins does make it obvious that all are unpleasant in their own way. The Manor is a world of its own, and while these boys have each been sent there as punishment or as a last resort, for most it seems to become a positive place (at least, for a time).
The school is run by Teddy, a slightly eccentric older man who, like the other staff at the manor, does not fit the stereotype of a mid-20th century educator of naughty boys. He is not harsh or unkind like one might assume a headmaster at this sort of institution would be – his presence is felt, but the fact of his power over the boys is a minor detail. He rather functions as caretaker, and a sort of weak reminder that the Manor does have an intended purpose – to reform. However, the circumstances are still bleak for these boys – the cold still lingers, the food is still plain and society’s perception of them is still negative – Goodwin Manor is a place to point fingers when a crime is committed in the local area, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that has the potential to make these boys legitimately dangerous.
Goodwin Manor is a place to point fingers…a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that has the potential to make these boys legitimately dangerous.
Reading The Everlasting Sunday, I found parallels with another recent novel that explores the intense and somewhat explosive nature of male adolescence. Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs (Hachette Australia) tells the story of a young Lebanese Australian man growing up in Sydney who, like Radford, Ahmad’s protagonist attends an all-boys school – women in both books are scarce. In a number of ways, these books are worlds apart – The Lebs is set in Australia at the dawn of the new millennium, while The Everlasting Sunday takes place in the mid-20th century on the other side of the globe. What both have in common is their depiction of the bristling uncertainty of budding masculinity.
Toxic masculinity is a aspect of contemporary culture that is endemic, but has only recently begun to be thoroughly examined. Books like these work their way toward one of the roots of this problem by telling the stories of these young men. Beyond the cigarettes, alcohol and us-versus-them mentality, the boys of Goodwin Manor are slightly out of focus. They are not particularly well defined as characters – their pasts are obscured, their voices difficult to distinguish, the close camaraderie that flourishes within this group-home setting casting them as a gang rather than a group of individuals. But this could be intentional – after all, they are teenagers, and still on the cusp of defining themselves.
The Everlasting Sunday is not the sort of book you’d ever call a page-turner – but this is not to its detriment. While the high attention to detail in Lukins’s prose can feel dense and frustrating at times, the payoff is a detailed image of each scene, with secrets that are carefully dusted off rather than revealed outright. Each sentence lingers on a moment, suspending action like frost creeping through a body of water.
The Everlasting Sunday is available now at Readings.