The Rocks by Peter Nichols

Books Reviews
The Rocks by Peter Nichols

While the relationship at the heart of Peter Nichols’ The Rocks ran its entire course in the late summer of 1948, it reverberates across decades, intertwining with dozens of characters who spend their lives, at least seasonally, on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca.

1ro.jpgWe’re introduced to Lulu Davenport and Gerald Rutledge in 2005, both octogenarians who’ve seen each other just twice since divorce ended their brief marriage nearly 60 years earlier. During a chance encounter, Lulu and Gerald, who continued living in the same small town, find themselves still holding the “flame of old anger.” They argue, and then stumble and fall together into the sea.

Nichols weaves the story in reverse from the aftermath of the two characters’ deaths, pulling the reader back through time to 1995, 1983, 1970, 1966, 1956, 1951 and, finally, 1948 to reveal the event that set everything in motion.

This fascinating structure plays out like an archaeological study, the unearthed layers of the story subtly informing one another, the picture of these lives at last coming into full view. As three generations of characters age, their own decisions and actions add to the twisting plot, which Nichols accents with questions of individuality and family identity, desire and aspiration, lust and love, fate and possibility.

Nichols allows questions about the conflict between Lulu and Gerald and why it went unresolved for more than a half-century hang over the entire novel, concluding with a tragedy as significant as their untimely deaths. But along the way, Nichols also propels the plot with questions about the complicated relationships among a host of other characters: the spouses Lulu and Gerald took after their divorce, Lulu’s son Luc, Gerald’s daughter Aegina and grandson Charlie, along with the visitors at Villa Los Roques, the seaside resort Lulu owns and operates.

The Rocks, as it’s colloquially known by the mostly English tourists who vacation on the Spanish island, is what drew Lulu to Mallorca and what remains the driving force in her life in the decades since. Gerald, a sailor and writer with a Homer obsession, first landed on Mallorca to confirm his belief that an island so far west could not have been part of Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca.

Nichols, a sailor himself, makes the most of the Mediterranean island setting. Mallorca comes alive in his prose and, when contrasted with his descriptions of Paris, Morocco and the Spanish port town of Algeciras, becomes—in Lulu’s words—a place where people “can leave the world outside.”

The olive and lemon groves, the bougainvillea, the sunshine, the sea, even the changes in the air that carry the comings and goings of seasons, define Mallorca and account for its exotic magnetism. Seen through the eyes of one English tourist, the island is a “Cézanney landscape” that becomes his own Shangri-La. As another guest of the Rocks describes the island, “The rest of the world becomes more and more horrible, but here it’s always exactly the same. Just like Lulu.”

While that description could also fit Gerald’s life, the long-ago incident with Lulu created for him “the horrible, stunting gap between dream and desire and practicality.”

It’s a minor character, Lulu’s second husband Bernard, who provides a foil to Gerald’s mindset. Imagining fatherhood, Bernard dreams of showing his son “the entire human story, touchable, instructive, charming, reeking agreeably, inexhaustible but not exhausting.” This forms one of Nichols’ central points, emphasizing how truth becomes fractured, how each individual’s perception of events is unique and thus prone to conflict with others and, ultimately, how some truths simply cannot be reconciled.

Ambitious in its structure, with its vivid island setting and a cast of eclectic and compelling characters, The Rocks is a novel that examines the fallout and lasting echoes, across generations even, of a single, consequential moment. Nichols sets this convincing tragedy in motion with one such moment, and without ever lamenting the fact, creates a fascinating narrative about our inability to choose, or even to predict, when and how those life-altering events will strike, like storms on an open sea.

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