"Jacques" Tanya Ravenswater
It is only when we matter, when we are seen and truly loved, that we know what it means to fully live.
This is the story of Jacques Lafitte, a young French boy who finds himself orphaned and torn away from everything he knows. Forced to move to England to live with his guardian – the pompous and distant Oliver – Jacques finds himself in a strange country and a strange world.
As years pass Jacques becomes part of the Clark family. But then his feelings for Oliver’s daughter Rebecca begin to surpass mere sibling affection. A development that has the power to bring them together, or tear the family apart . . .
Lesley Allen described this book as "seductively lyrical" and I have to agree with her. It is a simple story but what makes it special is Ravenswater's writing style and mesmerising poetic use of language. My pages are littered with highlights from where I found numerous phrases of exquisite prose and absorbing imagery.
It is a slow, measured read. It is about character, relationships, coming of age and love. Despite being so contemporary and set in the late 1980s, it had the feel of a more classical novel, maybe even a little like Dickens or a darker Laurie Lee, but certainly reminiscent of Forster and L P Hartley.
Jacques life starts sadly. Prepared for his parent's death by his Papa's methodical ordering of paperwork and finances following the loss of his mother, Jacques is then faced with "what Papa had described as the 'unlikely event 's his own untimely death. I had to accept that so-called 'unlikely events' were destined to be among the likely facts of my life." What is most striking about the two deaths is the way Ravenswater handles Jacques' realisation that his world will never be the same again. He was privileged to be held so dear by his parents that his "whole world had been built on what I trusted would be the unshakeable ground of their presence, my daily life framed by proof of how much I was cherished." She conveys such a loving, deep relationship that almost feels exclusive and separate from the rest of the world. Jacques- mature, intelligent, articulate and sensitive -explains how "discussion and storytelling had been central to my life with Maman and Papa....they had treated me as an equal in conversation". He is a character you cannot help but be drawn too and feel empathy towards. The reader is caught up in his engaging narrative and wants to read on and share his journey with him.
Jacques then finds himself shipped off to England to his "Aunt" and "Uncle", an event which Ravenswater's simple, observational statement conveys a profound sadness as deep as the channel Jacques has had to cross to get there:
"...my king and queen were dead, I was just a helpless little boy, stripped of everything, even his mother tongue.."
His new family couldn't be more contrasting to the one Jacques has lost. The house itself captures the personality of the parents with it's overwhelming atmosphere of oppression, imprisonment and reserve - a contrast from the creative, equal, discursive home his parents had embodied.
"..inside the house had 4 storeys and a steep, carpeted central staircase with white, thickly glossed bannisters. The rooms were high ceilinged, papered mainly in deep reds and browns, furnished with heavy, hard wearing fabrics, dark teak and mahogany....the floors were mostly bare, polished wooden boards with functional rugs and mats."
His Aunt is anxious, cold, and controlling. Jacques is intimidated by the first very formal meeting with her as she explains briskly "after I've taken you through our house rules, you will follow them to the best of your ability." His Uncle is more nonchalant and disinterested; a trait he displays to his own children not just Jacques. This is not the cherishing and nurturing environment Jacques experienced in France and sadly he recalls that his sense of not belonging anywhere or to anyone, alongside his grief, "forced me to evolve into a different person." Therefore their daughter, Rebecca, his "sibling" (although no blood relation) is a welcomed presence. She is more vital and colourful and enjoys telling Jacques all about her mother's job which is an abortionist. She talks frankly and bluntly - again, a contrast to Jacques naivety. But she also experiences a sense of isolation or difference from the harsh teasing at school where children regularly call out "here comes the murderer's daughter". They bond immediately and settle into a very intense relationship.
I liked Ravenswater's description. Her evocation of place and atmosphere was always so effective and always managed to effortlessly imply more about the character or events. For example, when Jacques talks about his new school he describes the "dark runners of its corridors, blackboards scored with monotonous lines.... I reduced myself to a scarcely noticeable grey dot."
There is a fantastic passage between Jacques and his aunt. Jacques is a talented piano player - a creative output for his emotions, but even this has to fall within strict rules and boundaries as his aunt is so terrified of anything she cannot control.
"treat my piano with respect ....or I will cancel lessons immediately ......You will wipe the keys after each use, and replace the cover and the stool"
It takes the joy away from anything and constantly reinstates a kind of fear. Jacques manages to penetrate her cold shell by suggesting she takes up lessons again and, revealingly, her reply is "....our hearts are no longer open and innocent. ....Our hands are irrevocably stained.... No amount of piano lessons will take that away".
There are many very moving passages. Jacques relationship with Stephen is particularly poignant, full of resonating intensity and sadness.
This is a very original read. It is one of those books which you read with ease and surprising speed but then find yourself contemplating for days after. Ravenswater's ability to capture the male voice of Jacques with such conviction and authenticity is highly impressive and it is hard to accept this is a debut novel.
Author GJ Minett recommended the book to me ages ago and he said "if you value precision and a wonderful control over the language allied to a sound instinct for exactly the right turn of phrase, then this is the one for you." It shouldn't have taken me so long to get around to reading!
I think this is definitely a writer to watch out for in the future.
The ebook of "Jacques" was published by Twenty7 (Bonnier Zaffre) on Dec 2015 and the paperback will be available on 8th Sept 2016.
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