Rites is a story of four adults looking back on a scandal that rocked their teenage worlds back when they were 14 years old and had made a pact to lose their virginities to one another. Ten years later, an unidentified inquisitor is interviewing them and members of the local community to establish what exactly happened. It quickly becomes clear that memories have become blurred with time. What seems solid truth at first is later called into question as we read a variety of different accounts of the same events.
The teenagers in this book are portrayed wonderfully. They are so realistic. Coulombeau has perfectly captured that period of adolescence where you feel like you somehow know everything about life and yet nothing about it at the same time. The years when you have your first taste of independence and are not quite sure what to do with it.
"What else there is to do has nothing whatsoever to do with why kids hang around on street corners. They do it because they've figured out that it's intimidating, and they like it. When grown-ups walk by, grown-ups by themselves, they're not exactly scared but they shut down a little, they tense, they brace themselves in case you're trouble, in case you're going to hassle them...There's nothing like a taste of power when you're fourteen"
The protagonists as teenagers are described with a real naiveté which made me feel quite sympathetic towards them. On the other hand, some of their adult selves are much less likeable and didn't seem to have reflected on their pasts with a very discerning eye. We meet the sneering Damian, who has fashioned himself into some sort of infamous anti-hero. Then there is Nick, who remains somewhat flippant about the whole affair. It really made me think about how we all judge situations slightly differently and about how bad we tend to be at taking a truly critical look at our own actions.
I find that novels with multiple narrators can be hit or miss but it works very well here. There are around 10 different perspectives so it's remarkable that each one has their own distinctive voice and I was never left flicking back the pages trying to remember who was talking, which I often find a problem with this kind of narrative. With so many versions of the same story you will find yourself wondering not only who is telling the truth but even: is there such a thing as an objective truth or does it depend on who you side with? How many situations might you have encountered in your life where the truth has seemed clear cut but might have looked a whole lot different seen from another perspective?
As soon as I finished reading Rites I wanted to go and tell everyone I know to read it, because it would be a great one to discuss and pick over with a group of friends or a book club. Everyone will be left with their own opinions about what exactly went on, and everyone will sympathise with some characters more than others. It has prompted a good dose of self-scrutiny and I think it's a story that will stay with me for a long time. So please go and pick up a copy, and then come back and tell me what you think so we can have a natter about it!