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Sophie Cooke: Under The Mountain

Sophie Cooke’s second novel reminded me a bit of The Go-Between, not so much because of the plot but more for the feel of the book. For both the motto The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there is apposite. However both contain an adolescent at home during the summer, confined to bed but, from the bed, seeing some inappropriate behaviour. In both cases, the adult looks back at this summer and how much it had an influence on both the adolescent and others involved.

The adolescent this time is a bit younger than Leo Colston from The Go-Between. She is Catherine Farrants, nine years old, who seems to have various illnesses which have kept her in bed. She lives with her parents, George and Natasha, and her older sister, Bernadette (Bernie). They live in a distinguished house (she drives past later with a boyfriend, after the family has sold the house, and he is very impressed). George is a publisher and his firm has done well in the past but is not doing so well now, so much so that Natasha really has to penny-pinch and, as we learn, they will have to sell the house later as they cannot afford a new roof. During this summer their older cousins, Sam and Rosa, and Sam and Rosa’s widowed mother, Ellie, are staying with them. Also staying with them, is Humberto, a wandering Spaniard, who is travelling around and who they have allowed to camp in a field. Unknown to the adults, Rosa and Humberto are having an affair and Sam is very jealous of his sister.

It is Sam’s jealousy that prompts the key event. He is annoyed with Rosa. He then finds his beloved dog, Julab, chewing his Ray-Bans. Julab won’t let go so Sam, in his anger with both Rosa and Julab, throws a small urn at the dog, badly hurting him. Sam then walks off in his anger. What he does not know is that Catherine has witnessed the event, though she will later claim to have been asleep. A few minutes later, Humberto will appear and find the dog. As he is examining Julab, the rest of the family, who have been out, turn up. Julab is hurried to the vet and it is assumed that one of the local boys is to blame though, later, suspicion will fall on Humberto. Humberto sets off to find Sam, to let him know of the injury to Julab and, to do so, climbs a nearby mountain but gets lost. Sam, meanwhile, returns, feigning innocence and trying to focus the blame on the hated Humberto.

What makes this book is not just the plot which, while obviously important, is not the key to the book, but the tension. Cooke superbly portrays the various tensions within the larger family. This includes both sexual tension as well as personal relationship tensions. With the sexual tension, it even reaches to the nine-year old Catherine, who thinks she is in love with Sam and is jealous when he starts an affair with Lori, the girl next door. But the personal tension between George and Natasha, between Sam and Rosa, between Bernie and Catherine, between Catherine and her mother, between Rosa and her mother, between Ellie and Natasha and between Sam and virtually everyone else is brought out in subtle and different ways. Several of them, as we all do, appear in one way on the surface, but have deep-rooted grudges or issues which drive them, particularly when dealing with others.

The book ends in the present day with plot developments and a look back at that summer but that is primarily tidying up. I have found Cooke’s two novels to be excellent and clearly underrated. I do not know whether this because she is in Scotland and therefore somewhat out of the mainstream or for other reasons but it is a pity that she is not better known .

Publishing history

First published by Hutchinson in 2008