The Rocks, the second novel by Peter Nichols, has everything you’d hope for in a great beach read: a vivid Mediterranean setting, complicated entanglements, adventures at sea, some hanky-panky and a little heartbreak. But its sunny exterior conceals some sharp observations on human vulnerability and how easily self-preservation can calcify into mere selfishness.
The book begins in 2005 on the Spanish island of Mallorca, at what seems like the end of the story. Gerald and Lulu, both in their 80s, cross paths for the first time in decades. It’s not a happy reunion; we don’t know why, but we know they were married, briefly, 60 years ago. They argue, stumble and then—not 10 pages into the novel—they fall into the sea and drown.
From here, the novel telescopes into the past: 1995, 1966, all the way back to 1948. With each step back, we learn more about who Lulu and Gerald were, what led them to Mallorca and drove them apart, and why there’s such tension now between their two (unrelated) adult children. Each scene reconfigures the previous until at last the whole tragic story emerges.
Most of the action takes place at The Rocks, Lulu’s seaside hotel, where a group of expats spend their summers. Lulu is a siren: ageless and beautiful, irresistible to men, but diamond-hard and pitiless. Gerald is quiet and kind, a yachtsman and writer who putters around among his olive trees. They’ve each made a life on the island, each remarried and had a child, but they’re worlds apart. The contrast between the way these two approach the paradise they’ve found shapes the whole novel and everyone in it.
Nichols writes with authority and clear affection, especially on anything boat-related. (He has also written a memoir about sailing a wooden boat across the Atlantic.) He can subtly and effectively inhabit multiple voices: a Spanish officer at a port-city jail, the jazz guitarist who plays Sunday nights at the hotel, even the seedy English rake with an appetite for seduction. With its large cast of eccentrics and their ever-shifting relationships, The Rocks feels a bit like the literary equivalent of a good Netflix binge: a guilty pleasure well-crafted enough that you don’t actually have to feel guilty about it.