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Winner of the Next Great Novelist Award 2012

‘When I was fourteen I did something terrible. At least, that’s what some people tell me.’

Four teenagers make a pact to lose their virginity away from the watchful eyes of parents and priest. Fifteen years later, they reflect on the past and unravel how it all went so horribly wrong.

What really went on there? You decide.

'A compelling and provocative multi-stranded narrative with a high-concept hook, this is a story told in many voices which is always risky but Coulombeau pulls it off beautifully. In a further challenge to the reader, the novel also comes down on the side of there being no such thing as objective truth when it comes to different people’s memories of the same experience. Coulombeau’s unflinchingly clear-headed analysis of the human psyche is deeply refreshing.'


Sunday Express

A compelling and provocative multi-stranded narrative with a high-concept hook, this is a story told in many voices which is always risky but Coulombeau pulls it off beautifully. In a further challenge to the reader, the novel also comes down on the side of there being no such thing as objective truth when it comes to different people’s memories of the same experience. Coulombeau’s unflinchingly clear-headed analysis of the human psyche is deeply refreshing.

The Press

There is a a clear-sighted lack of sentimentality about the way Sophie allows her characters to expose themselves through their own words. It is utterly un-put-downable. Don’t even pick it up if you have to get up early for work the next morning.

Girl Vs Bookshelf

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. 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.

Sally Hughes, We Love This Book

This fresh, eminently readable novel uses multiple viewpoints to reveal a story told ten years on of a teenage pact which went horribly wrong. Sophie Coulombeau’s web of lies and self-deception sees characters expose themselves through their own words and questions the existence of objective truth in the murky ambiguity of moral choices.

The Independent on Sunday

The reader is taken convincingly in one direction then the other – implying that ultimately, the only truth we ever know is what we feel to be true, even if that is a product of self-delusion. [Coulombeau] Makes fully plausible the shifts in affection, allegiance, even desire, of her young characters, and shows how these shifts can be both terrifyingly quick and deeply felt.

Philip Pullman

Terrific. A story that’s intriguing, puzzling and entirely gripping.

Sophie Hannah

Original and gripping, this novel stands out from the crowd. I’m sure Sophie Coulombeau is destined to become a literary star of the future.

Kathleen MacMahon

Smart and sassy and so well-written, this novel leads you into a moral maze and lets you find your own way out. A very clever book that turns you into more than a reader – you become judge and jury.

Fiona Shaw

Rites is a powerful read that has you questioning the wisdom of any adult and the innocence of any child. The story Coulombeau tells is an everyman tale of desire, friendship and betrayal. Behind it is a mind that takes nothing at face value: not love, not desire and not the violence that we are capable of doing to one another.

The Yorkshire Post

A stunning debut. Incredibly well crafted… zips along at a breakneck pace, insisting you return to the start once you’ve finished.

Daily Mail

Assured and disquieting debut… a carefully orchestrated, dizzying narrative.

David Hebblethwaite

There’s a wonderful sense of uncertainty – the feeling that, even when we think we know everything, perhaps we don’t after all. Add to this some insightful observations – on growing up, falling in love, and more besides – and you have a fine debut novel.

Ian Kirkpatrick

Breathtaking originality and verve. Sophie Coulombeau is the genuine article.

Sixth Form Poet

A haunting tale of teenage sex and scandal.

Follow the Thread

Coulombeau’s great strength in Rites is in how she controls the flow of information, and plays with and against readers’ expectations. So there’s a wonderful sense of uncertainty – the feeling that, even when we think we know everything, perhaps we don’t after all. Add to this some insightful observations – on growing up, falling in love, and more besides – and you have a fine debut novel.


We are the wiser as citizens to have been educated by the writer… Immensely readable and lucid.

Mark Allen, Blogomatic 3000!

Honest… human… despairing… it broke my heart a little bit. A damn fine book.

Sophie Coulombeau Rites Q&A

Sophie Coulombeau Rites Q&A

Sophie Coulombeau Rites Q&A

The Day After

An extract from Sophie Coulombeau's novel Rites. It's the day after the night before, and the fallout begins.

Karen Cox
I remember the next day, the Sunday, much better than any of this other stuff you’ve been asking me about. Because that, that was when I clocked on something bad had gone on.

I mean, they didn’t check out. That was the first thing. There was no answer when I knocked. The door was open when I tried it. So I went into the room and there was nobody there. And, well, I’ve seen some rooms left messy but it was like a car crash in there. Booze bottles everywhere and ash on the bed and the whole place stank of weed. And, well, then there were the condoms. Used. And blood on one of the bedsheets. (Sorry, but I’m just telling it like it is!) So, that was when I started to suspect there was no father after all. I won’t lie, what initially sprang to mind was, for me, worse than what actually happened, in some ways. I didn’t know about the girls, you see, we never saw them. But then I found the keys.

They were obviously a girl’s keys. The key ring was pink, and shaped like a horse’s head and that. So I would’ve known even if it hadn’t had Lizzie O’Leary written on it. Next to the phone number. And then I thought, Okay, gotcha.

Silly little buggers should’ve at least checked out. They might’ve got away with it if they’d just checked out. But we needed the room keys back, you can’t run a business like that, letting people do a runner with your keys whenever they want. And then I found big cigarette burns in one of the sheets, and I got pretty pissed off, I can tell you. And then I started to think, What if we get follow-up on this? It was pretty clear by then, even though we’d seen no sign of any girls, that there’d been some underage business going on. If the police got involved it could be seriously uncomfortable for us. Best-case scenario, there’d be some bad publicity. Worst case? Well, I won’t say things like prostitution didn’t come to mind, at that point.

I talked it over with Steve. Best call ’em up, he said. Call the number on the key ring. Chances are you’ll get the parents, and they’ll take it from there.

So I did. I did it that evening, the Sunday. About seven o’clock, it was. The news was just finishing on the telly. Here it comes, Lizzie, I thought, as I dialled the number. Should’ve checked out, shouldn’t you, miss.

That evening, the evening that we heard what had happened, I was in the kitchen peeling potatoes. I remember, I was thinking about Lizzie. More about her than about me. It’s funny that, isn’t it, given that I had no idea what was coming that evening. We hadn’t had the phone call, or anything yet. I suppose… the fact that I felt like I had gone so wrong, made me think about how I could stop the same happening to her. It was too late for me, but she still had a chance. Every day I saw in her, more and more, those little things about myself that I hated. Weak. Weak and desperate. I decided that there’d be no more running around with that boy for her. Or I knew what’d happen. I knew better than anyone.

When Paul picked up the phone and started stammering and looking at Lizzie, I knew. Don’t ask me how but I just knew what she’d been up to. What a chip off the old block she was, after all.

But I never guessed that she’d deal with it the way she did. That she was capable of doing what she did.

The call came on the Sunday evening, when we had got back from mass. We were all in the kitchen. Kathleen was in a foul mood, one of those silent moods where you knew anything you’d say, she’d snap. So everyone was quiet. Lizzie was laying the table. Potatoes for dinner were on the boil. I can’t remember what we were eating with them.

The phone went and I was closest so I picked it up. It was a woman on the other end, and she said, Good evening, is this the house of a Lizzie O’Leary? I remember that ‘a’. As if she were an object, and as if there were lots of her in the world, and the caller wanted to know if we happened to have one.

I turned and looked at Lizzie, and I suddenly felt very wary, very cautious. But I had to say something, so I said yes, it was. Lizzie looked back at me, and the thought suddenly occurred to me that she’d hardly spoken all day, and I was scared. I was a bit scared. But I had no idea what was coming.

Who am I speaking to please? said the voice on the phone.

My name’s Paul O’Leary, I said. I’m Lizzie’s father. Everyone had stopped doing what they were doing in the kitchen, by that point.

The woman said who she was. I can’t remember her name. And she told me she’d found the keys, in the room. In that damn B&B in Brooklands where it happened.

I said, no, she was staying with a friend last night.

She said that she wouldn’t know anything about that but that the keys were at the B&B last night. That she had them in her hand. She jingled them, I remember hearing the noise, as if to prove her point.

I didn’t know what to think. I thought, it would be some kind of trouble, and my first thought, straightaway, was how to minimise the hell that Kathleen would give Lizzie for it. I said something like, Right, well thanks for letting us know, and asked if I could come round and pick up the keys the next day. She said, Well, it’s not quite as simple as that, and told me that they hadn’t checked out and still had the keys, and there had been some damage done to the room as well.

I thought – well, I thought that I couldn’t go into this any more without knowing what happened. I could see Lizzie out of the corner of my eye, sitting very still, with her head sort of drooping down towards the table. I thanked this woman for calling and said I thought I needed to have a little chat with Lizzie and I’d call her back.

I think that’s a very good idea, Mr. O’Leary, said this woman snottily. I’m afraid it looks as if there may, completely without our knowledge, have been some hi-jinks going on here.

I said, Well, yes, we’ll see, or something else suitably vague, and I took her number and said I would call her back either tonight or tomorrow. Then I put the phone down. What was that about? Kathleen said. She was standing with her hand on her hip and the potatoes were boiling over. I didn’t say anything at first. I adjusted the phone in its cradle and pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. I would have liked to talk to Lizzie alone, but that’s not how things happened in our house.

What’s she done then? said Kathleen.

I looked at Lizzie, who was still looking straight down at the floor. I said, Lizzie, that was a lady who said she’s found your keys this morning. In a B&B in Brooklands.

She didn’t say a word.
I said, Do you want to tell us something?

She started crying.

Kathleen said, What the hell were you doing in a B&B?

I said, Lizzie, I think you owe us an explanation. I hate myself now, when I think how stern I was with her. She must have been so frightened.

Kathleen started off on one, What were you doing, oh I think I can have a pretty good guess, what did I do to deserve such a daughter, all this stuff. Lizzie just sat there and she took it. Then I noticed she’d started whispering, her lips just barely moving, whispering so quietly you couldn’t hear a word in the bloody… noise coming from her mother, and I shouted, For God’s sake let her talk! Just let her talk!

That shut her up, Kathleen I mean. There was silence except for the bubbling of the potatoes, and Lizzie drew in a big breath and wailed like a baby. A long, horrible wail. She said, I didn’t want to do it.

Do what? I said.

He raped me, she said.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Who did? I said.

Day, she said. She looked up at me.

I got up, I nearly fell over the chair, I remember, and ran around the kitchen table and I took her in my arms and held her.

I will never forget the next moment, when I looked up into my wife’s eyes and saw her looking from me to Lizzie, and her expression said, I saw it coming and, You don’t believe this, do you? That was the moment my marriage ended.

What were you doing there in the first place? In a B&B like that? she said to Lizzie.

I said, It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, into my daughter’s hair. Then, like I said, I took her hand and I got her coat and I took her down to the police station in my car. While she curled up on the back seat and cried because she’d been raped and her own mother didn’t believe her.

I have always been interested in synonyms. It seems to me that the way in which we use words to mean more than one thing are often delightful little windows into our collective subconscious. The term that stuck in my mind when the good doctor was doing his spiel was ‘aspiration’. This word denotes the passage of something travelling into the lungs or windpipe that has no business being there. So, my mother aspirated her own vomit. Or, as I prefer to think of it, my mother’s vomit aspired to her windpipe. The brain damage that ensued, the permanent paralysis of her functions, was the result of an unfortunate aspiration. I won’t labour the point, but you see what I mean.

On the subject of words: although I hesitate to use such a hackneyed, meaningless brick of verbiage, I feel honour-bound to state that the Sunday evening was… lovely. There was that drained sense of exhaustion that follows a crisis, which food and friendship and comfortable surroundings can convert from a terrible feeling into an oddly delightful one. Rachel was extraordinary. Her father was extraordinary. Even my brother was behaving himself, only too happy watching the idiot box and gnawing on a naan bread. I knew, I felt, that we were in the eye of some sort of storm. Nick and Lizzie and everything, we’d have to sort that out at some point, and there were going to be social workers buzzing around Jordan and I after all this… but it was going to be okay.

Then the doorbell rang.

Michael went to answer it. He was quite a while, and when he came back there was a rather attractive blonde woman with him. I thought, Hello Mike, you saucy old dog. I must have been smirking somewhat. Then I saw the big bloke behind her. And then she took out a piece of ID and held it up to me and said, Damien Brady?

Yes, I said.

She gave my address, like a question.

Yes, I said again. I thought it was Mum. I said, What’s happened? Is she okay?

She said, I’d like to have a word with you please. It’s quite serious.

I looked around, at my brother, at Rachel, at her dad. What about? I said.

About what happened last night.

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Sophie Coulombeau

Sophie Coulombeau was brought up in Manchester. She studied at Trinity College, Oxford and the University of Pennsylvania and subsequently worked for the British Civil Service in London and the European Commission in Brussels. She has a PhD English Literature at the University of York. Rites is her first novel.

Book: Rites