Rook is a novel about a community with buried secrets, figuratively and literally. In it, Jane Rusbridge (author of The Devil’s Music) has woven together threads of historical fact, and local folklore, into a fabric of subtle colours and closely observed details.
Life in the village of Bosham is disrupted when a TV documentary maker arrives, and makes a case to exhume the remains of an eleventh century king purported to be at rest under the floor of the parish church. The village has links to the Battle of Hastings, and is mentioned in the Bayeux Tapestry. While the ghosts of the Norman conquest are still in a sense present, the real conflict takes place between a modern day mother and daughter, Ada and Nora.
Ada is a woman in her declining years with an unravelling grip on reality. Her fragmented memories run through the whole novel, giving the reader skewed glimpses of the family’s history. Her daughter, Nora, is a cellist who has apparently abandoned her destiny to play at international concert venues in favour of teaching music to schoolchildren. Nora’s abrupt return to Creek House is unwelcome as far as her mother is concerned, and one of the real virtues of this novel is the almost unbearable tension which develops between them: there’s hardly any arguing, just a pattern of disapproval and festering resentments.
Nora takes on several projects to occupy her, such as long-distance running, and volunteering in the village, but her main preoccupation is the adoption of a baby bird, Rook, who she attempts to nurse back to health. Rook is an adorable creation, fragile, volatile and weird-looking; at the same time he’s the eerie embodiment of spirits of the past. The attachment between Nora and Rook, her foundling, potentially redeems them both.
Where this novel really flies is in the evocation of environments, of spring tides, flooded roads, rookeries, archaeological digs, battle grounds, and vast skies. The landscapes which emerge from this novel are vivid, even cinematic. Equally impressive is the way Rusbridge’s prose sweeps down to the smallest detail, to a painted glass jar, the ridges of a scallop shell, or the lining inside a coat.
Father figures are also important and recurring – idolised, substituted, lamented and often unattainable – the legendary kings, Cnut and Harold, occupy a space in the imagination, as do the masculine ex-lover, and the beloved absent parent.
You feel the author’s deft touch on every page. Rook is a novel of layers and textures, patiently crafted, and beautifully finished.
Rook by Jane Rusbridge
Published in the UK by Bloomsbury, August 2012
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