To me, “on the rocks” means on ice, so this title skews flippant. But I don’t think that’s what Jane Gardam intends. Those rocks are literal, since God on the Rocks is set in an English coastal resort with a pier and tide pools and a beach. As for the God part, he is very much present in this novel. Or at least, his followers are. Followers in a variety of flavors, with different levels of sincerity and effort.
Honestly, as I read this novel I had to marvel at Jane Gardam‘s imagination. God on the Rocks is less exotic than The Man with the Wooden Hat or Old Filth, and its structure is less complex. But Gardam has a startling way of creating drama. The big events here occur offstage, while the small events — a failed tea party, a walk in the woods — are crammed with conflict. Maybe you could say that her approach to life was elliptical. And make no mistake, this novel may not be long but it encompasses the big things in life: love, death, faith.
For much of the book, the protagonist is the eight-year-old Margaret Marsh, a clever, observant girl. Gardam does a wonderful job imagining her tart and unsentimental but necessarily limited view of the world. In fact Margaret’s interpretations and misinterpretations of the world around her, especially her vivid apprehension of adult sexuality, are reminiscent of those of some of Henry James’ worldly children. What Maisie Knew, for instance, comes to mind. Also Jamesian are the crucial sights that become plot points: a pair of hands on a woman’s back, for instance.
Margaret’s father Kenneth Marsh is a Primal Saint — an adherent of a very strict branch of fundamentalism that rules out most fun. The Marsh household is severe. Margaret’s mother Elinor has just given birth to a baby, Terence, and as Gardam says, “The almost permanent pietà of Mrs. Marsh and the baby was the only sensuous thing in the house.” The nursemaid Lydia, with her brassy hair and her loud wardrobe, is an exception: it is Lydia who unsettles the household’s balance. Also in play here are Elinor’s long love for the effete Charles Frayling, Charles’ passive dependence on his sister Binkie, and their misunderstanding of their embittered mother. The novel eventually leaves Margaret to visit the concerns of all of these characters, which intersect in unexpected ways. There is a storm, several deaths, redemption arriving in a back-handed fashion. There is a fabulous scene involving, literally, worship on a rocky seashore — does that remind you of anything? In fact now that I think of it, there are little glancing allusions to Biblical images or themes everywhere. An adult Margaret says of her father, “he left me with a sense of God… It is a big present.” Yet in the end, Gardam seems to suggest that the path to God is found simply in caring for people and trying to be good.We could all do worse.