My Blogomatic 3000 review of one Sophie Coulombeau‘s first evah book. It’s well good innit. Here’s why:

“You never forget your first, do you?” seems a true enough statement. We all remember our first time; popping our cherries, taking the training wheels off…okay, I’m out of embarrassing euphemisms so I’ll spare you from any further discomfort. I can’t promise the same of Sophie Coulombeau, though, whose debut novel, Rites, bravely straddles the divide between sex and morality with a healthy dose of uncomfortable moments thrown in for good measure.

The book, as you may have guessed, is about virginity: specifically, how a group of friends living in Manchester – Day, Lizzie, Rachel and Nick – lost theirs fifteen years ago when they were all fourteen, and how they made such a pig’s ear of it.

The narrative takes the form of a kind of reader-led investigation into the story’s events told from multiple first-person perspectives recalling the tale from the present, each with a unique but believable voice and ranging from the core characters themselves such as the overly verbose (and occasionally annoying) Day – short for Damien, fact fans – to their parents, authority figures, moral leaders and those on the periphery. Each narrator has a different angle on the story and the way Coulombeau often flits between them neatly exposes gaping holes in theories and inconsistencies in explanations, and the further you seem to get to the heart of the matter, the more the truth slips through your fingers and begins to sound like a fiction itself.

Upon discovering the multiple-perspective-narrative I was immediately reminded of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction which employs a similar technique, and while Rites shares that book’s honesty and confusion about the relationships between teenagers (and, as it turns out, adults too), Coulombeau’s northern-set story plays a little closer to home than Ellis’ American college-set stream of consciousness and a hell of a lot less nihilistic.

Many of the characters seem like people I’ve met before in my life, and are often easily relatable, even when committing acts or making statements that I would find reproachable. But whether or not I like them is beyond the point; the fact that I still care about these people after the hell they put themselves through is a testament to the strenght of the writing.

Many questions are put forth at the beginning of the book and I expected to be pleasantly surprised by how I came about the answers. Instead, the answers crept up on me, cracked me on the back of the head with a crowbar and promptly pissed off, leaving me reeling at the possible consequences this new epiphany would have. If I say to you that Rites is full of twists, please don’t take that as an insult; here the twists aren’t just plot developments shoehorned in for shock value but natural results of cause and effect, jigsaw pieces that you realise fit perfectly into the puzzle you’re putting together.

Only the thing about this puzzle is that it’s never going to fit together perfectly. Things wrap up satisfyingly enough depending on who you’re rooting for – it might not be who you think at first glance – but, as with any novel worth its salt, the beauty of Rites are in those moments that perfectly capture a feeling or a memory that you can completely empathise with or lose yourself in. There’s passage in particular – I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to say that it occurred at the story’s climax (ho ho ho) – that  had me staring at the page, re-reading the last sentence to assure myself that what had been said was not some mistake, some error on the narrator’s part, because it was almost too honest, too human, too despairing to be true, and it broke my heart a little bit. But then I realised that it was true, of course it was, and that’s the only way it could have been to that character.

Which is what’s really encouraging about Rites: all characters find a truth that suits them, or, as one character sums up perfectly, “an understanding of the world that satisfies them.”

And any sentence that can break my heart must surely be in a damn fine book.

Rites by Sophie Coulombeau is out now from Route Publishing.

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