Royals is Emma Forrest’s fourth novel. I’d not read anything by her before but was attracted by the idea of a working-class Jewish boy drawn into the orbit of a poor little rich girl set against the background of London in 1981, the summer the city, or rather the entire country, found itself caught up in Royal wedding fever. Not me, I have to say.
Eighteen-year-old Steven is the son of a cab driver who regularly takes his frustrations out on his wife until Steven starts to take the punches for her. The day of the royal wedding, Steven’s father hits him so hard he wakes up on the children’s emergency ward. In the bed next to him is Jasmine, brought in after her fourth suicide attempt and loudly complaining that she should be with the adults. Jasmine’s a beauty but that’s not what attracts Steven who’s clearly gay despite his repeated declarations that he hasn’t made up his mind yet. She’s a fabulous creature who charms everyone with her dazzling attention and her generosity. These two instantly click, forming a friendship so deep it’s as if they’ve known each other for years. Steven experiences more over the next couple of weeks than he has in a lifetime, luxuriating in an unaccustomed intimacy. He also comes to understand what lies beneath Jasmine’s desperate need for company and for love. By the end of the novel, Steven will have taken the first step in attaining his ambition to produce clothes that flatter and cosset the women whose pain he longs to ease.
Almost within the first five minutes of starting it, I found myself thinking what a great film of the good old-fashioned variety Royals would make. The period detail is spot on; earworms abound for those of us of a certain age. Forrest unfolds – or perhaps unreels – her story through Steven’s voice as he looks back on the brief few weeks his shy, awkward teenage self spent with the sophisticated yet vulnerable Jasmine. It’s not a particularly original story, no real surprises, but it’s one that keeps your attention with its vivid cinematic scenes.
I got some dirty looks and some interest and that’s how it’s continued for the rest of my life
Both Steven and Jasmine could easily have been hackneyed caricatures, each representative of their class and background, but Forrest succeeds in bringing them sharply to life: Jasmine’s manipulation of anyone she needs on her side contrasts with her generosity of spirit while Steven’s clear-eyed perception of her worst behaviour cannot inure him to her charm and need. It’s a thoroughly entertaining and absorbing novel. Forrest knows how to turn a striking phrase, telling her story with wit, humour and insight.
Can you imagine a life where we just look at pictures of ourselves? It would be unbearable says Jasmine, explaining her encyclopaedic knowledge to Steven. How true, and how prescient.
Bloomsbury Books: London 2019 9781408895214 336 pages Hardback