Royals by Emma Forrest

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Aaah the 80s. The decade we loved to hate and hated to love, with its fluoro, spandex, and shoulder pads, until it was brought back to coolness by the likes of Stranger Things, The Goldbergs or The Americans.

Different times. Times of carefree materialism, decent airlines, groundbreaking bands and seasonal weather, a complete disregard for the environment and a good 7 minutes to go on the Doomsday clock.
Different, but similar as ever when it comes to teenage-hood and its anxieties and relationships.

In the summer of 1981, Stephen and Jasmine, respectively 18 and 19  years old, meet at the hospital in dramatic circumstances. She’s been trying (yet again) to kill herself and he’s been beaten up by his dad in front of the entire street party gathered to watch the royal wedding of Charles and Diana.

They soon become friends, a platonic, uncomplicated deep man-woman friendship that only occurs if one of the parties is gay, which Stephen is, though he claims he hasn’t decided yet. Jasmine and Stephen immediately start living in each other’s pockets, with Stephen spending less time at home not to see his dad and more time in Jasmine’s over-the-top Notting Hill mansion.

Jasmine is a rich as Stephen is working class which has turned her into a bored, promiscuous, coke-snorting socialite. Stephen, on the other hand, is a sheltered homebody and a virgin. Their friendship is based on a common fascination for the Royals, fashion, and 1960’s stars.

Their relationship is shadowed by Stephen’s concern that motherless Jasmine might try to “top herself off again“, his disdain -tinted with attraction- for her father, an elusive man that only comes to visit a couple of days here and there, making up for his absence with Duty-Free gifts and cocaine. Jasmine is as concerned by her friend, his abusive father, overbearing mother, and fact that he hasn’t yet had a sexual experience. Both are lonely, Jasmine’s loneliness exacerbated by the fact that she’s surrounded by acquaintances but no friends, and Stephen by lack of fitting in. They are also the children of broken families, comforting each other from their traumas.

Whilst the Royals honeymoon, the friendship blossoms into something very special, possibly a tad far-fetched for my cynical self, the level of intimacy they reach in such a short amount of time seeming a bit over the top.
The fact that Jasmine has a menial job in a tacky souvenir shop doesn’t seem to work with the rest of the narrative. But this can all be overlooked, for Emma Forrest’s style is both funny and touching, and the characters are well defined and compelling and their adventures intriguing and well-paced.

The story of Stephen and Jasmine is told retrospectively, through the eyes of a grown-up Stephen, his adult point of view and hindsight providing additional depth to the narrative.
With tenderness and humour throughout, and a blend of comical and dramatical situations leading to the unexpected ending, this tragi-comedy makes for a lovely coming-of-age read, and I could imagine would make a pretty decent movie too as the whirlwind story of Stephen and Jasmine is emotional, colourful and vibrant.

Royals is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

Emma Forrest

Emma Forrest has published three novels, an essay collection and the memoir Your Voice In My Head. An Anglo-American currently based in London, she recently wrote and directed her feature debut, Untogether. Her latest novel, Royals, is due out in 2019.


Reviewed by B.F. Jones

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