The Sunday Times
24 August 2008
In her second novel, Under the Mountain, Cooke weaves a tale that tracks the difficult road to adulthood
Like James Stewart in his role as the housebound and bored photographer in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Catherine Farrants relieves the monotony of her sickbed by looking at the view. As the nine-year-old drifts in and out of a measles fever, the sounds and sights of an idyllic, soft-focus Highland summer float inside to meet her. Picnicking in the poppy-strewn garden of their Victorian mansion or tending cabbages in the vegetable patch, her parents, sister and two teenage cousins enjoy the sticky hot summer of Charles and Diana’s wedding. The scene is soaked with a fuzzy, sun-kissed nostalgia, where children swim in rivers and young lovers snatch first glimpses of each others’ underwear out of sight of grown-ups.
It is only when Catherine witnesses a brutal attack on Julab, the labrador belonging to her older cousin Sam, that her primly sweet childhood is propelled into premature adulthood. After the incident, her storybook, dressing- up world is darkened by bleak, detached thoughts, some of which follow her to 2008, when she reappears as an adult. Order does eventually return, bringing with it hope and hindsight, but before it can, the fabric of Catherine’s family life must first unravel, spilling out convenient lies and self-deceptions about her parents’ marriage and her cousins’ pasts.
As with her first novel, The Glass House, which was nominated for the Orange Prize, Sophie Cooke has cast rural Scotland as a protagonist. She reveals its charms and inconsistencies as if it were one of her rich ensemble cast. Catherine’s mother is a tense, thrifty woman, racked by a very female guilt as she covets her bourgeois sister-in-law’s silk dresses or becomes overcome with irritation at her apologetic, approval-seeking ways. Sam, reminiscent of the troubled teenager in The Glass House, has lost his father, is struggling to reconcile his half-baked notions of goodness and badness, and has written himself off in the meantime as a toxic outsider.
The relationships, like Cooke’s prose, are satisfyingly complex. Natasha’s husband, George, is a repressed but cheerful academic, who avoids plain conversation in favour of coded nuggets of his intelligence. There is a similarity in Cooke’s dense, ambitious writing, where sentences are often delivered like George’s soundbites, with “a delay built in to the explosion of its meaning”. Occasionally, her detours into pedantic etymology or knowledge-drenched analysis detract from the plot, which is too compelling to warrant much of a diversion. Better is when she pauses a snapshot, zooms in, and runs a kaleidoscope lens over what she sees, rotating the image and layering depth and nuance into what appears.
It is Cooke’s dual ability to pick apart beautifully the daytime details of cosy family life while also exploring much loftier themes of God, truth, memory and love that set her aside as a mature, intensely emotional and intelligent writer. Just as the people inside the mansion may be simultaneously flicking through Harper’s Bazaar at the kitchen table, or listening to Blondie cassettes on a candlewick bedspread, someone upstairs may be furrowing their brow through a philosophical debate or wrestling with psychological demons.
Demanding, poetic and not afraid to argue her point, Cooke has created a thought-provoking family study, brimming with insight and maturity. Some of her characters shatter and break, but most become undone and are then rebuilt. Although she does not shy away from the murkier or melancholic moments they must wade through, it is these glimpses of human resilience that give her narration a moving, arresting power.
Under The Mountain by Sophie Cooke is published by Hutchinson, £14.99.