Love on the rocks


FICTION: The Shape of Her, Rowan Somerville, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 273pp. £12.99

THE LONDON-BORN author Rowan Somerville, currently residing in Co Donegal, is a peripatetic artist who has worked in a variety of media, including film and television. Now, following the success of his first novel, The End of Sleep, he has produced this darkly erotic, offbeat holiday read.

Set on a remote Greek island, The Shape of Heris a sensuous and atmospheric book, in which Somerville’s two young protagonists, Max and his girlfriend, Tine, bake their beautiful young bodies on the yellow sand of an isolated cove, drink warm, acrid wine and beat the tentacles of pink octopus off ancient rocks to tenderise its meat before baking it in a fire pit. The weight and torpor of sun and sex ooze through the pages like the yogurt and honey the couple eat under the shade of the oregano bushes.

All is not as it seems in paradise, however, and although the young English pair want to jettison their high-street armour and their middle-class sensibilities in favour of retsina, honey cake, naked swimming in moonlit coves and a romantic shack in the wilderness, it is not long before their pasts emerge from the waves like great trident-wielding gods. Fate soon threatens to overwhelm the nubile mortals, both of whom have been damaged by the sins of their elders and the failure of an ambitious and restlessly careless society to protect its young and vulnerable.

The book, which hurtles to its conclusion like a ricocheting bus on a corkscrew hill, is divided into two time frames and two narrative voices, with both of the lovers leaving the present day and their increasingly anxious and hostile romance to delve into their childhoods and tease out the sources of their confusion and despair.

Max has the more potent story. As a talented but not particularly wealthy boy, suffering from dyslexia, he was dispatched by his loving if misguided parents to a prominent English Catholic boarding school, where his childhood was brutally and irrevocably extinguished by bullying and sexual abuse. The short chapters illuminating Max’s boyhood grow in intensity as the present-day lovers’ relationship tumbles into an abyss of sexual and emotional frustration.

Tine, much of whose bohemian childhood was spent on the Greek island where the novel is set, was equally cruelly relieved of her innocence. As the book speeds through the years to the couple’s untenable attempts at love, one is left in no doubt as to the metaphorical significance of the jagged and lethal rock that lies just below the surface of their private bay.

Although this is a skilled and confident piece of work, there are moments, as in the visit from a rambunctious older character which leads to Tine’s cathartic revelations (and somewhat alarmingly speedy recovery), when the architecture of the book starts to look a little too efficient and well trimmed, its form a little too well tailored to be hanging out on the beach.

The Shape of Herlurks somewhere between a sun-sex-and- sangria novel and a darker, more literary exploration of the complexities of love and the loss of innocence. Laced with elaborate poetic language, the novel has a wonderful feel for the Greek islands, for their food and inhabitants, for the strangeness of isolated communities being awoken each summer by intruders looking for all sorts of healing. Dotted with myth and whitewashed villages, this is an entertaining book that, while not echoing to the chimes of chick lit, probably wouldn’t be out of place in the beach bag.

Hilary Fannin is a playwright and journalist. Her version of Racine’s Phaedre,with music by Ellen Cranitch, will be produced by Rough Magic at Dublin Theatre Festival this autumn