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Strange Beauty

Michael Reidy’s The Rock Pool is suffused with nostalgia, the aching remembrance of rose-tinted, irrecoverable time, the bitter-sweet longing for a return home. ‘Home’ in the novel is not that of the narrator, Nick Lucas, but the beach house at Fulmar Point of his friend, Jack Amiche, his two sisters and their parents, where Nick spends magical summers during his teens.

The setting is one of the joys of this fine book. It teems with rich images and with sounds and scents and textures, redolent of this enchanted Atlantic beach: the fine white sand, bare feet in the cold running waves, the pyrotechnics of a storm, clam chowder, crabs simmering in a cauldron, the smell of the driftwood fire, ozone and wet sand.

This being a Reidy novel, there is an enigmatic female at the heart of things. Sarah Hallam lives with her family in a huge house atop an outcrop of rocks. She is friends with Lucy and is a frequent visitor to the Amiche’s house along the beach. Almost inevitably, Nick falls in love with her. Whether or not she will come to reciprocate Nick’s feelings is a key strand in the novel. She seems to extend and withdraw her affection wilfully. Is she playing him along or is there some hidden reason for the way in which she allows glimpses of her inner self and then closes down?

A pervading image is the eponymous rock pool. Sarah is often seen by the highest pool among the rocks, studying the marine life within. At first glance, the organisms in this little world seem silent, serene and stable but every so often there is a flurry of vicious activity and it becomes clear that this is a miniature universe of predators and prey, dangerous despite its strange beauty. There is a similar use of the rock pool image in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

We learn gradually that all three girls suffer an inner darkness despite the appearance of confidence. I will not go into detail here for fear of inadvertent spoilers. Suffice it to say, that their psychological profiles are credible and sensitive.

The boys’ idyll is not without its clouds. Their animal spirits are radiant as they run or swim or catch crabs or dig for clams or, best of all, ride the rushing ebb tide on inflated inner tubes, out of the estuary and round to the ocean shore. The joyous exuberance of youth in such a setting left me feeling a little envious, though Nick and Jack’s teenage years are overshadowed by the draft, national service in an unwinnable war, whereas my peers and I were spared national service by eight years. Sometimes the girls are included in these escapades but, in the end, the future encroaches, vast and unknowable, like the ocean itself.

In literature, the American Dream always resolves into the elegiac. It is not that the characters meet with failure – Nick and Sarah particularly enjoy a measure of material success – but there is an absence of fulfilment. Again, I mustn’t say any more except to say that there is a surprise in the dénouement which will smack you between the eyes, so startling and unexpected is it. Things fall into place retrospectively and the enigma is unlocked.

This is a complex novel and yet it reads easily and conjures up one’s own memories of lost time, like stirring a rock pool with a stick.