on 29 May 2014
Set in a boarding school for boys in the late 1930s the book examines the complex relationships that exist in this microcosmic world. The themes are bullying, prejudice, homophobia and personal isolation which are explored through an increasingly perturbing but totally convincing plot. I think the book could also be read as an allegory for emergent fascism and its resonances are dark and disturbing.
Nevertheless, the book is very compelling and once started I found it very difficult to stop reading it. It is a challenging and thought provoking book that is very well written and deals with complex issues with sensitivity and honesty.
Although the content is bleak it is counterpointed with good descriptive writing which softens the harsh realities of the storyline and prevents the book from becoming too depressive.
I've already read most of Jonathan Hill's previous books and was looking forward to reading this his debut novel. He has already demonstrated his abilities as a writer in the 'Maureen' novellas and short story collections. This book goes in a completely different direction but it shares with some of the earlier writing an empathy with the outsider that is explored to a much greater depth here. The author does not shy away from the physical intimacies which are an integral part of the story but this aspect of the writing is not voyeuristic, exploitative or sensationalised.
The final development of the novel is unexpected and poignant with the hint of the possibility of a better future. The author's personal appraisal in the final pages of the book reminds us that complacency in relation to prejudice of all kinds is too easy and too dangerous.
Well deserving of five stars and highly recommended.
on 12 September 2014
A Review of a Book That Cannot Be Named: By Jonathan Hill
This new novel by Jonathan Hill exceeds all expectations. Having read and enjoyed some of his previous works, I looked forward to this book, but I was surprised at the immediate impact this book had on me. By the end of the first page I knew that this was something special. This book is an award winning book: the world just doesn’t know it yet.
It is highly insightful and a great social commentary, and is as relevant today as it was in the era it is written about. It is not just about the struggles to recognise and live with one’s sexuality, it is about people’s acceptance of corruption within the status quo, and our moral duty to rock the boat.
I pondered how Charles Darwin would view this book, and whether he would argue that Grey was weak and deserved his fate, whereas Smythe was a typical example of the Alpha Male. He might claim that Smythe had truly assessed the world around him and risen to the challenge. He had learned the rules of the game and climbed to the top of the food chain: Simple survival of the fittest.
Then I considered the counter argument that would be heatedly debated by the likes of Henry David Thoreau on our duty to be disobedient if we see fault within society, and I’m sure that George Orwell would likewise have something to say on the matter. Man must strive to rise above his baser animal instincts and become more than an animal. If humanity is to continue to adapt and grow into a better society, we must strive for more than just the survival of the fittest. To do less is an insult to our intelligence.
Darwin would perhaps argue that without men like Smythe, the World Wars would have been lost, but I’m sure that Orwell would have argued that it was exactly because of men like Smythe, that there were so many tragic deaths on the battlefields of Europe, that the quest for dominance and power is the cause of such mass destruction.
Although the book looks at the stigma behind homosexuality in pre WWII Britain, the deeper message within the novel could as easily have been about slavery or to bring it into modern times, it could be about corruption in the banking and political sector, or even the recent genocides around the world. To me, it is about the individual speaking out and demanding justice from the status quo.
This is a powerful tale, written by an author who has found his wings and learned to fly.
One further note: Sadly, despite the claims of free speech, we are not allowed to mention the name of the book, lest it cause offence. It appears that we have become so politically correct that we are being edited for our own convenience by the mighty A-Zon. The mere sight of this three letter word seems to cause shudders within its corporate structure so I am not allowed to write the books title within my review – I could write hardcore erotica and that would be fine, but this three letter word is banned. How sad!.
Is this the heights that we have attained?
on 21 June 2014
What you’ve got here is a writer at the top of his game, writing about issues he is clearly passionate about. Add to that mix, a story of understated power and the result is what one reviewer described as a masterpiece. I agree completely.
The poignant story is told with some truly elegant and clever writing and I was gripped immediately. The story itself deals with issues which sadly will be forever relevant in society. I for one found some relevancies in my own life, perhaps not in the way the author intended but I think this shows how strong a book this actually is.
There is an impending sense of doom throughout the story and I found the tension so well handled that although, occasionally, I had to put the book down I knew I had to pick it straight back up to find out what happened next. Again, this is a testament to the writer’s obvious skill.
The school and the characters which inhabit it are superbly drawn; even the minor characters are well rounded and add to the bleak outlook for the main character, Grey. You get a real sense of the world closing in around him. Of the frustration and anxiety of his position and of a feeling of desperation and inevitably – hopelessness.
I don’t read many books twice but this is one I will be reading again.
on 28 May 2014
Jonathan Hill tackles prejudice, bullying, peer pressure and much more in this amazing insight of life in a boarding school in the 1930’s. As the pages flow and a tragedy unfolds I was forced to look at my own family and wonder could this possibly happen to anyone in my family and me be totally unaware of it and therefore not be able to help them. The writing and portrayal of the characters by the author made me actually get in the mind of a young boy and feel his pain and into the tortured mind of a teacher desperate to do the right thing and the turmoil he felt when faced with confronting the formidable headmaster when facing his own demons. A gripping hard hitting read. One that certainly makes you think. I am looking forward to more by this author.
on 26 May 2014
Do take the time to read this.
This is a shortish book that belies its depth.
The subject matter of bullying and oppression in private schools of the 1930s is not a comfortable read.
It is however a worthwhile and extremely well written book.
Sadly the topics are as relevant today in social media as they were in a public school.
Let's hope this book helps.
on 29 June 2014
There is nothing wrong with a book designed purely for entertainment, but every so often you read one that really means something as well. This is one of those books. It's important.
Set in a boys boarding school in 1930s England, this novel looks at the institutionalised bullying that the hierarchies of boarding schools promote. Almost from the start there is an atmosphere of tremendous oppression that affects teachers and pupils alike. But as the story develops, it becomes clear that bullying can take on many forms - involving class, status, age, gender and more.
Jonathan Hill's writing, already at a high standard with his Maureen stories, evolves here in unexpected ways. He adopts a semi-poetical style, with a lot of rich metaphor and simile throughout. This is beautifully apt since much of the book dances around the whole issue of homosexuality, using the same balletic moves as the characters. This is clearly an author developing his powers by reaching deep within himself.
Sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes tragic, but always spellbinding, here we have a book that deserves to be read by everyone. Not just by those looking for entertainment, but by those who also need to be challenged, and perhaps even changed. This is a novel that makes you think about your own prejudices and how they can hurt people far more than your fists ever could.
on 3 June 2014
The title initially refers to the ranking system prevalent among pupils in the boarding schools of the time. As the harrowing story progresses however the word reverts to its more derogatory connotation.
The exquisite style of the writing belies the underpinning malevolence of the plot, I found myself rereading paragraphs relishing the sheer elegance of the narrative while paradoxically dreading discovering what indignities the characters were going to have to endure next.
The main impact of the book lies in the author’s portrayal of the use, misuse and interplay of power between both pupils and masters which leads to treachery, prejudice and ultimately tragedy.
On recommending this novel to friends and colleagues in the equality and diversity field I don’t think I exaggerated when I described it as a modern masterpiece.
on 8 June 2014
This is a brave and honest book. Although it is set in the past, the themes and subject matter are, sadly, as relevant today as they were then, and they are dealt with through a strong and emotional storyline and great writing. It is not an easy read, as the author does not shy away from difficult subject material or cloak it with a lot of unnecessary words, but it is the kind of book that, once started, you are compelled to read to the end and then, when you have finished, the characters and their lives stay with you.
Everybody who has ever been bullied should read this book, and those who have ever felt inclined to bully someone because they appear to be different in some way. And then everybody else should too.
I really enjoyed reading the author’s collection of short stories in the Maureen series, so was eager to head into his first full length novel. I have to say if you are looking for Maureen Goes To Boarding School then you are in for a big disappointment as this read is a complete departure in style and content, being very much darker. Set in 1937 in a boys’ boarding school, the style of writing very much reflects that era and dialogue in particular really seems to “fit”. At times I could almost imagine Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson talking in front of me. The title of the book refers to the custom in English boarding schools of first floor boys acting as “servants” to the older boys, fetching and carrying for them and generally doing as they are ordered. A long established custom (phased out now), one which would be all too easy to abuse by a group of prefects used to being at the top of the pecking order.
The story centres around Latin teacher Gray. He has always taken the path of least resistance and tended to turn a blind eye to some goings on at the school. When he is finally face to face with the evidence of bullying at the school, will he be able to find the strength of character to protect the young boy who is suffering and do something about it? If so, will it be too late and will there be ramifications in his own life?
He is a very weak character who finds himself in turmoil not only about the bullying, but his own sexuality. Will he have the strength to face up to what he has long suspected about himself, or will he carry on as before, almost limping along day to day in his stale marriage to school nurse, Grace? Even at the start of the book he seems to be in a fragile state of mind and as events at the school take place, his mind just seems to unravel more and more as his life starts to spiral out of control.
Writing this book has obviously been a very personal journey for the author, he really does seem to have poured his heart out in the telling, so to speak. I did enjoy reading it, even if parts of the story were not quite what I would have chosen to read normally.
on 31 July 2014
The epigraph to Jonathan Hill's first novel is taken from Virgil's The Aeneid and it speaks of arms and the man; one whom is exiled by fate; a traveller assailed by land and sea. And it is The Aeneid which is a leitmotif within the novel, threading artlessly between the plot, the action and the narrative: beautifully stitching the whole tale together internally from beginning to end.
The Aeneid is also an objective correlative for the novel's embattled dual protagonists: both of whom are metaphorically exiled in their own land because of the nature of their sexual orientation. One is a teacher of Classics at Brierley's, a celebrated English public (i.e. private)school. The other is a prefect at the school and a promising student of Latin.
The opening sentence of the novel sets its ironic tone perfectly: "Brierley's was devoid of almost everything that makes a school a school". This is literally true in the sense that the school has broken up for the Christmas holidays. Yet it is also true in terms of the school's values. For Brierley's is a microcosm of the brutal society of the 1930s which is characterised by notions of survival of the fittest, chauvinism, corruption and hypocrisy: a society in which homosexuality is illegal, punishable by social ostracism and prison. And no-one exemplifies Brierley's values more than Hodges, its dictatorial, manipulative, unethical and inherently criminal headmaster.
The novel's omniscient narrator informs us that if Brierley's were a factory its product would be men; yet, paradoxically, at this school the boys are turned into men not by their teachers but by themselves. For such is the oppressive and abusive nature of the institution; its lack of regard for the observance of law, justice and civilised behaviour; the refusal of its custodians to intervene to prevent injustice, that the concomitant anomie which is the consequence of such moral bankruptcy, quickly forces the boys to become brutal men in order to survive. For the boys' own peers are capable of "the most horrendous and limitless evil" and Brierley's is a place where you can often only survive by using your fists.
Teaching in this travesty of a school is John Gray, the Classics master. Gray is a brilliant teacher, but because he is civilised and liberal and does not believe that the best results are achieved by tyranny he is perceived as weak. He is ineffectual at controlling the boys and is humiliated by them. He is therefore inimical to Brierley's ethos in which the absolute imposition of the will is the paramount virtue. We can see the kind of man Gray is when we learn that he prefers to use green ink when marking books because he feels that red ink might offend the boys' sensibilities and de-motivate them. Gray tries to keep confrontations to the minimum because in any encounter he knows that he will invariably lose. He is intimidated by the older boys whom he knows speculate pruriently about him and his wife's sexual relations. Consequently he is a deeply unhappy man. In addition to his professional problems his marriage is heading towards the rocks because of his conflicted sexuality and he drinks heavily.
Jonathan Hill's novel is an indictment of the pupil-servant system that was widespread in English public schools. Hence the book's somewhat ambiguous and equivocal title. Under this system young boys are required to minister to the needs of the oldest boys, (the prefects)no matter how extreme those needs may be. As this practice operates within a closed institution such as a boarding school it makes the pupil-servants vulnerable to continual physical, psychological and emotional abuse. Most of the younger boys stoically endure this in the expectation that one day they too will become prefects and ultimately be in a position to hand out similar rough treatment to their own pupil-servants. And so the cycle of bullying is perpetuated.
Jonathan Hill's plot is too good to give away so I will not describe it in too much detail. Gray becomes aware of the egregious bullying of one of the young pupil-servants by a group of prefects that includes his cherished Latin scholar, Thompson. Gray complains about the abuse to the headmaster who refuses to act. Indeed, he justifies the prefects' appalling behaviour on the grounds that if the prefects did not assert their authority "then the foundation of the school would crumble." The usual fascist justification for overlooking and defending evil in whatever circumstances. Because the abuse and bullying go unchecked a tragedy inevitably ensues. The establishment closes ranks and a massive cover up follows. The need for Gray to be disgraced and removed then becomes imperative and he is condemned by the use of circumstantial evidence provided by the one he most trusts and admires.
The novel's plot is masterly but its most satisfying aspect comes at the book's end. Here, Jonathan Hill achieves that most difficult of conclusions: the ironic ending which combines both the positive and the negative: closure has been achieved and although much has been lost much has also has been gained in terms of wisdom and experience. And in the novel's epilogue the author magnificently confounds our previous perceptions by an astonishingly ingenious use of flashback which he handles with such skilful ambiguity that it is not until the final page or so that we understand what truly happened in Gray's study. It is then that we experience the full impact of Jonathan Hill's irony.
The characters are all extremely well drawn but character is not just a set of traits or a bundle of attitudes, for the true essence of character is only revealed in circumstances of extreme pressure when the stakes are raised and difficult choices have to be made: it is only then that the real person comes out. Jonathan Hill understands this very well and applies the technique throughout. He uses the plot to pressurise his characters and so force from them their essence. This is what makes them so real.
The standard of the prose often reaches great heights. Parents see their children "grow and develop in sharp spurts. A flick-book with most of the pages torn out." Gray's memories of his mother have been snatched away from him "like sea water relentlessly eating into a cliff face." A "whirlpool of whispers" is a "sinister susurration." Pupils are "reluctant . . to raise their heads above the parapet of mediocrity and publicly shine in front of their classmates." And the passages describing the bullying and abuse by the prefects are so graphic and real that reading them is almost unbearable.
Some of the incidents in Jonathan Hill's novel are ugly and brutal, therefore his occasional use of ugly and brutal language in the narration and in the characters' discourse is appropriate and apposite. The author has not fallen into the trap of depicting the 1930s in the sanitised terms of the censorship which applied at the time and which presented the decade unrealistically, so that the middle and upper classes were depicted as never using swearwords and the lower classes were depicted as swearing in ludicrous and unreal euphemisms such as"blinking", "dratting", "darn it" and "nitwit" instead of using the honest and real oaths they would naturally have used in everyday life. By avoiding this the author has managed to bring the 1930s to life in a way that is both believable and contemporary. For this he should be congratulated.
Ever since I read Jonathan Hill's two wonderful collections of short stories, "Eclectic" and "Beyond Eclectic" I have been hoping that he would write a novel. This is it and it is magnificent. It fulfils all of the promise of those wonderful short stories and presages even greater glories. It is a novel that has echoes of other school fiction and drama such as Tom Brown's Schooldays, Lord of the Flies, The Browning Version and Term of Trial, yet, for all that, it is completely singular and original. An impressive and dramatic debut novel. Highly recommended.