I’m not sure where the idea that school days are the best days of your life came from but it’s one that’s commonly bandied around. My school days were just about OK, quite enjoyable in the sixth form, but if I’d thought they were to be my happiest times I’d have been downcast to put it mildly. Schools make interesting settings for fiction though, particularly boarding ones which, fortunately, mine wasn’t. Here, then, are five novels with a school backdrop, all with links to my reviews.
Set in a girls’ private school in the ‘70s, Louise Levene’s The Following Girls features the Mandies, the bad girls of the fifth form. Chief rebel, Baker is the daughter of a mother who left when she was three and a miserable father who has somehow persuaded his second wife to be his domestic skivvy despite her full-time job. Stuffed full of pitch-perfect period detail, Levene’s novel will have women of a certain age and education both squirming and cackling in recognition. Baker fires acerbic one-liners like scattershot but beneath her smartarse exterior lies a slurry of adolescent insecurity exacerbated by her carping, moaning father and her well-meaning but emotionally awkward stepmother. It’s a very funny novel – the teachers’ internal monologues are a particular joy – but Levene’s sharpest skill is her ability to signal the pain beneath Baker’s witty rejoinders.
Striking a more serious tone, Rachel Donohue’s Temple House Vanishing explores themes of love, betrayal and jealousy in a girls’ Catholic boarding school. Twenty-five years after the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Louisa and her art teacher a young journalist decides to write a series of articles about the case, more in an attempt to understand it than solve it. It took me a little while to get into Donohue’s debut but once hooked the mystery of what happened to Louisa and Mr Lavelle nagged at me. Louisa is a convincing character, confident in her intellectual ability yet uncomfortable in this hothouse atmosphere where entitlement runs deep. A little out of my usual literary territory, but an enjoyable read that keeps you guessing before delivering its denouement.
Written in 1989 and set in postwar Switzerland, Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline also explores life in a boarding school with all its stifling intensity as an unnamed narrator looks back to when she was almost fourteen. When an elegantly dressed, perfectly behaved new girl arrives, our narrator determinedly monopolizes her. Soon she and Frédérique are the closest of friends until Micheline arrives, brightly vivacious and full of tales of her flirtatious father. Obedience and discipline are the school’s watchwords but love seems nowhere in this austere, pinpoint sharp novella.
Also set in a girls’ boarding school, Magda Szabó’s Abigail was published in her native Hungary one year after Jaeggy’s novella, so popular that it’s even been adapted into a rock opera still performed in Budapest. It’s about fifteen-year-old Gina whose officer father sends her away to the other side of the country in 1943 on the eve of the German occupation. At first, she enjoys being feted as a novelty, thinking herself superior to these provincial girls so intent on finding ways around their school’s draconian rules, but when her father suddenly appears, she’s faced with a sobering reality and rises to the occasion. Like Jaeggy, Szabó summons up the claustrophobia of boarding school life vividly. The tiny, tightly controlled world of the school contrasts starkly with the bloody drama unfolding outside its walls.
After four girls’ schools, Pamela Erens’ The Virgins takes us into co-ed territory as Bruce remembers the passion he conceived for a striking new pupil at his New England prep school full of kids whose parents were bent on a glowing future for their offspring. Shortly after she arrives, Aviva becomes involved with Seung who knows how to bend the rules and how not to get caught. They quickly become a golden couple but is their relationship all that it’s assumed to be? There are a few scenes of clumsy, over excited adolescent intimacy to be got through but Erens gradually draws you in, engaging your sympathy for her characters in a world where everything becomes magnified, all perspective lost amidst the burgeoning sexuality and experimentation. Although we’re prepared for an unhappy ending the final twist is utterly shocking. Not a comfortable read then, but a thoroughly absorbing one.
Any novels set in schools you’d like to add to my list?
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