Rollins’ (Good-Time Girl, 2019) historical novel tells the story of a troubled, talented English boy’s coming-of-age in the 1960s.
As a small child, George Carveth grows up on the Cornish coast surrounded by family, although some of his relatives disapprove of the ballet class that he attends: “Strange he was the only male child there. Some of the boys in the neighborhood didn’t want George playing football anymore, which was batty….The adults decided this ‘Frenchy dancing’ had gone far enough.” When his father gets an offer of a new job in London, his parents move to the city while 10-year-old George is sent to a posh boarding school. There, the other students make fun of his accent, and a bigoted member of the faculty takes exception to George’s partial Indian ancestry. He’s seemingly befriended by one of his schoolmasters, Mr. Wilburn, but the man quickly reveals his true intentions by asking George to dance naked for him. The teacher’s sexual abuse of the boy coincides with a split in George’s personality: the cautious, everyday George and the secretive “Shadow George,” which he sees as his “bad self." As Shadow George increasingly makes decisions for him, the 14-year-old dances on a lark before his classmates while "lightly clad," and makes aggressive advances toward younger students. One of his uncles, who recognizes George’s talent for singing, dancing, and impressions, encourages his parents to contact a talent scout, so George meets a pair of Americans named Jack and Jill Stuart. With their encouragement—particularly that of Jill, to whom the teenager takes a special fancy—George begins to hone his craft and embark on a career in entertainment. The 15-year-old continues to struggle with his confused sexual feelings as he pines for Jill and as Jack makes sexual overtures. As the boy reaches his later teens and success in the arts appears within reach, Shadow George threatens to cause more trouble.
Over the course of this novel, Rollins’ prose is nimble and ornately textured, evoking the landscapes of Cornwall and London with painterly skill. Her characters are drawn even more finely, as each is revealed to be a knotted web of conflicting instincts and beliefs. Her treatment of sexuality—and the predatory advances of adults and older children—is particularly sharp. At one point, George reveals Wilburn’s actions to his older cousin Timmy, who says that he regularly exposes himself to a Norwegian sailor in exchange for a penny. The cousin remarks that there are “Odd ducks in the world…I’ve met a few. No one ever tells you.” Apart from these moments, however, the book has a very traditional feel; indeed, Rollins lays out her story at a leisurely pace that sometimes drags, and the plot’s shape is somewhat easy to predict. Still, Rollins has assembled an array of broken people who are compelling, even as they destroy one another, and she manages to capture a horrific side of humanity.
An unnerving but highly readable historical novel about a troubled teen.