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With her signature blend of psychological intensity and strong moral underpinnings, Jane Rogers skillfully leads us into a primal, almost mythic world where our darkest impulses and most profound fears are played out to shocking consequence. Part fairy tale, part murder mystery, Island is, like the madness it depicts, terrifying, logical, and utterly consuming.
When I was twenty-eight I decided to kill my mother. Things were going wrong and I was looking to put them right. They went from bad to worse and I was unwilling, basically, to see the slide continue. I needed to take control.
Nikki Black's my third name. The Cannings called me Lily. Sweet white name, little Lily Canning, little girl lost. Then the birth certificate said I was Susan Lovage. But I'm not as white as a Lily, not as blunt as a Susan, I'm nobody's Lovage. And with no father in the case—unknown neatly printed in his space—I fathered myself. Black.
The other serious contender was `Ruth'; the healer I saw in Hereford recommended Ruth, but to me it smacks of pity. Rueful, you'll rue the day. `There's rue for you, and here's some for me.' An Ophelia clone. I don't think so. Ruth's a bit open too. Ruth, truth. Nikki's better guarded. I'll go for Nikki I told her and she said it would unleash different psychic powers. Different how? I asked. Nikki is more dangerous, she said. OK fine. Dangerous suits me. Not that I believe a word of it, obviously.
Nikki Black. With teeth. The spelling matters.
Lily Canning lived with Mummy Canning and Daddy Canning in a nice house in the suburbs of Birmingham, and it was a happy family with spade and bucket summer hols just like the reading books. But the mummy and daddy fell out and Mummy Canning ran off with her driving instructor. Little Lily was five years old, just starting school. Daddy Canning was a busy man with an important career in banking so one day he sat Lily down andtold her something that would be better for her. It would be better for her, he said, to have a mummy. And now Mummy Canning was gone and not coming back, it would be better for her to know that Mummy and Daddy Canning weren't her real mummy and daddy but had only adopted her. And now he would give her back to somebody else so they could find her a new mummy who would look after her properly and not run off. Because how could he on his own, when he had to be at work all day? It wouldn't be fair to her. And in another house there would be brothers and sisters to play with. It would be much better for her.
Lily Canning was taken to a children's home (the first). There she was a very naughty girl and fought with the other children and wet the bed and scribbled on her books at her new school. They told her she would never get a new mummy if she behaved like that; which was just about the only fucking true thing they ever told her.
I'll keep it short and simple. Lily Canning was fostered; no good; taken to another children's home. Went into the class of Mrs Plant at junior school who taught her to read and told her she was clever. Mrs Plant, who knew a thousand fairy tales off by heart and told them each day after dinner, filling Lily's head with lost children miraculously found, and happily-ever-afters. Lily settled down, reformed, got herself adopted again aged ten. Thank you Mrs Plant. But was `sneaky, secretive, you don't know what she's thinking, not open like a child should be' after a trial period with new mumsy and dadsy. Silly Lily! She tried too hard. Pleasing and thanking for everything, trying to say what they wanted her to, just so they would want to keep her. So that they would like her! Thinking goodness would bring rewards. Silly sneaky Lily.
To children's home (the third). Smashed things up. Stole the little kids' money. Accused the houseparent of sex abuse when he told her off. To children's home (the fourth). There were quite a few moves around then, predictable stuff.
At fourteen I got clever again, and was fostered by the Marshalls. Moved up to the top sets at school. You don't have to be nice to be clever. You don't have to be liked to be clever. You can be clever all on your own.
The Marshalls had a fat slow daughter called Louise, she was a year older than me. She used to sit in her room and sulk. They had a pretty cosy corny house, with flowery wallpaper and matching curtains; a dresser with crystal glasses arranged on it, and bits of hand-painted pottery. Oxfam calendar on the wall; they went to church. They were as nice as pie. Suck it up, I told myself, suck it up while you can, Nikki girl, all that middle-class cosiness. They'd be in front of the telly of an evening, Mr and Mrs, with a glass of wine each and her doing something useful at the same time, ironing or putting church newsletters in envelopes or sewing buttons on. The endless useful things these virtuous women do! She had her little photo gallery like they all do that she had to show off to me:
`Sharon, she was with us for a year, she did ever so well at school. She's at college now', and `Philippa. She was so shy she wouldn't speak to anyone at all. D'you know what we did? We started leaving little notes for her—what would you like for tea? and have you got any homework tonight? and would you like to go skating on Saturday? and she wrote us little replies. And then one day when I came in I started unpacking my shopping and I said to her, "Philippa, read me what you've put on that note, would you love, I've got to get this food in the freezer." So she read it aloud to me! And after that we got her talking.'
How bleeding wonderful.
They thought I was great. I was. Compared to their pudding of a child. I charmed them. I chatted intelligently at meals and passed the spuds before they asked for them. I watched the news and made remarks about world affairs. I read five library books a week. I talked to the woman.
The man might as well've had a lobotomy, he pottered about the house and got himself off to work at eight and home again at 6.30 and cleaned his car and watered his roses and never spoke a word. That's where the daughter got it from. The mother was desperate. She wanted drama. Emotion, danger, excitement. What the poor old bat wanted was a bit of life. So I started confiding in her, the sort of stuff she wanted. What did I tell her? Oh—about being abused at the home in Hereford. About the girl who killed herself, who shared my room. About my social worker having an affair with the houseparent at the last foster home but one, and not believing anything I said because she had to pretend I was lying about that too. About being raped by those two boys after school, and the deputy head who said he just wanted to help me and put his hand up my skirt. About dreaming about my mum and thinking how happy I would be with her and how good I was going to be because I knew one day she'd try to find me and be pleased about how good I was; how I woke with tears in my eyes.
Oh she loved it, poor pale woman in her ghostly eventless life. I can see her now, leaning forward on her elbows on the kitchen table, then reaching across to pat my arm and take my hand: `Oh Nikki, I'm so glad you feel you can talk to me. It's so good for you to get all this unhappiness out into the open.' Parasite. Sucking up distress, slurping up the juice of it.
Upstairs of course her fat sad daughter's stuffing her face with choccies (they gave her £10 a week spends and she never went out) and making herself puke. Mrs wanted us to be friends. I could hear her nagging fat Louise when I was virtuously doing my homework. `She's had such a hard life, Louise, you really should try and be kind to her. And she makes the best of it, showing an interest in everything—you would enjoy her company you know, if you made a bit of an effort.'
She took us to the cinema and left us to see a film together. Louise ate a sack of Opal Fruits and four Mars Bars. She took us skating but Louise wouldn't go on the ice. They sat together in silence eating toffee, watching me.
She had so much sympathy for me, that woman, she wanted to adopt me. She talked to me about it. `I know you're nearly fifteen now and some would say grown up, but I just want you to know that you should always feel at home here, I really want you to think of me as family, as someone who'll always be there for you. You mustn't think everyone is like those awful people in Hereford; there are people in life who know what love is, and who are loyal.'
What a lovely time I had. Until Louise got to the point where the domestic supply of biccies and cakes and what she could buy with her spends wasn't enough, and started nicking from Mum's purse to supplement her binges.
I was the first to hear of it, of course.
`Nikki,' says Mrs, her big brown doggy eyes shining with seriousness. `No one's going to blame you or be angry, no one's going to be upset. What's important is that you should be honest with me. That's the most important thing. I don't mind what you've done, I understand. But I do want you to tell the truth. Now did you take some money from my purse?'
I had the devil's own job to persuade her it wasn't me. She wept at me, she pleaded with me, she set Lobotomy Man on me to ask me to own up and be forgiven, she held my hand for hours, she offered me money, as much as I wanted, as long as I'd promise never to steal again ... In the end I lost interest and told them to look under Louise's bed. She'd got all the wrappers there, everything. `Haven't you heard her chucking up?' I asked them. `I thought you knew she had a problem.'
Ha. They were pretty sorry for themselves. And surprise surprise all those heartfelt words about always being someone I could turn to melted away. Suddenly there was palpable coldness. And closed doors downstairs, and negotiations with my social worker on the phone. Suddenly Louise was downstairs and I was upstairs, and Lobo Man was heard to raise his voice. He said the same word twice, I heard him. `Cuckoo,' he said. `A cuckoo.'
Mrs Marshall had her very own little drama to focus on and she didn't need me at all any more. And so I moved on.
The social worker lectured me. `You mustn't tell lies. You lose sight of the truth and you don't know what's real—'
Can't see any harm in that myself. Can't see what's so great about the truth, that I should need to keep it in sight. Lies make the world go round. People need something to get their teeth into. D'you want the whole world blank and silent? Absence is nothing to talk about. You can't talk about a gap.
You mustn't tell tales. Way back, Mummy Canning said that. `Tell-tale tit/your tongue shall split/and all the little birdies/shall have a little bit.' I used to imagine that: a flock of them with their sharp little beaks circling flapping swooping in, pecking at thin strips of my tongue, pulling, digging their claws into my chin and heaving like the thrush on the lawn tugging a worm out of the earth.
I like tales. Those fairy tales from junior school Mrs Plant. I like it when Fir Apple and his sister turn into a pond and a duck to escape the clutches of the wicked old cook. I like it when ugly Rumpelstiltskin helps the miller's daughter spin straw into gold. I like the princess who weaves shirts from nettles for her seven enchanted brothers to release them from the shapes of swans. (They're in such a hurry she has to give the youngest his with the sleeve unfinished and he turns back into a fine young prince except he has a swan's wing for an arm. Imagine.) I like frogs that turn into princes and old women that turn into maidens and fish that can speak and grant wishes. I like to lose sight of the truth. Truth is shit.
2. Fir Apple 8
3. A Plan 12
4. The Pigeon 20
5. On Mothers 26
6. Falling 36
7. Calum's Treasure 46
8. Seals 59
9. Table Rock 72
10. A Daughter 86
11. A Sharp Knife 93
12. Bull Rock 103
13. Enthusiasts 115
14. Mother's Weak Spot 134
15. Ashplant 147
16. Dislocation 158
17. Salt 168
18. Birthday Cake 184
19. Tempest 190
20. Susan's Father 202
21. Seven Swans 208
22. Night Sky 223
23. Viking Bay 228
Posted January 15, 2011
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