Any novel featuring a precocious clique of university students acting out a lethal drama of arrogance, manipulation and murder is inevitably going to draw comparisons with The Secret History. Most of these comparisons are, let’s be honest, going to be unfavourable, because Donna Tartt’s first (and in my opinion best: discuss) novel is a masterclass in campus nastiness and post-adolescent hubris that has yet to be bettered. I’m not surprised that Tartt gets a mention on the book’s back cover, but to assume this is going to be a mediocre attempt at a carbon copy would be to do The Truants a disservice.
However, I openly admit that when I started reading it, that’s exactly how I thought it was going to unfold. I’ve read a couple of novels with similar set-ups (The Bellwether Revivals, If We Were Villains) so was pretty sure what to expect: an insular group of characters whose vices, obsessions and jealousies eventually tear the obnoxious clique apart from the inside. Kate Weinberg begins her book by introducing a collection of characters who appear to fit into this mould. Jess Walker, from whose point of view the story is written, is a frustrated girl who has lived out her life thus far as the bored, almost-invisible “middle child” in a pretty unremarkable middle class family. On her arrival at university she is immediately drawn to the absurdly wealthy, socially fearless and uninhibited Georgie and the two of them form a slightly unexpected but inseparable pair. It’s not long before this fledgling friendship expands to include two young men: Nick, another student and Alec, a South African journalist who although not enrolled in the university, delights in turning up on campus to argue with and humiliate the lecturers. Every dysfunctional group needs a force to drive it to its ultimate destruction, and it’s Alec who is the catalyst for the events that follow. His position as the influencer of the group is easy to understand; he has a seductively tragic backstory, a life experience his younger admirers lack, and a level of eccentricity and individualism that falls just on the right side of appealing. Crucially, he is also incredibly charming – an asset that will have serious repercussions for those who fall under his spell.
So far, so unsurprising: but the author throws another character into the mix, one who I found the most intriguing of the entire novel. Lorna is a university professor whose reputation for academic excellence and cutting edge ideas earns her something of a celebrity status among her students, in the eyes of Jess most of all. At first I had her painted as a somewhat insubstantial personality, a stylish yet hollow woman who knew how to put on a performance and who took undue delight in the hero-worship she received from her naïve pupils; as the novel progresses, however, she becomes more of an enigmatic figure and we’re never sure how much of the mystique surrounding her is a fabrication, a figment of Jess’s obsession, and how much is founded in reality.
I was expecting The Truants to remain quite insular in its focus and claustrophobic in its setting, as is often the case with stories of this kind, but I was actually very happy to find it take off in an unexpected direction. In the first chapters there are all the hallmarks of pending self-destruction: drinks, drugs and romantic attachments, some concealed and some very much less so. However, the author cleverly decides to split her close-knit group apart midway through the novel, and this gives the book room to become a different sort of story. The second half becomes almost more akin to a thriller, with a mystery to be unravelled, yet the writing manages to balance the excitement of an unsolved puzzle with an increasingly astute focus on the characters and their confusion, passion, guilt and pain. Jess carries the story in ever-increasing solitude as others fall by the wayside, and eventually it comes down to the relationship between the troubled student and Lorna, the professor, mentor and caregiver to whom she is drawn like a moth to a flame. The connection between the two remains shrouded in questions to the end. Was there an element of sexuality there? Was the affection even genuine, or was it ultimately a relationship that served a purpose at a particular moment in time?
There are few neat answers for anyone involved in this story – and I liked that. The truth of life is that friendships drift apart, past betrayals cast a shadow over relationships that can taint them forever and people can disappear from your life overnight without warning and before you’ve had a chance to make your peace with the part they played in your journey. The partying students who we meet at the beginning of The Truants learn many of these hard lessons over the course of the book, and I think it’s that progression that prevents us from tiring of a collection of characters who are, to be brutally honest, mostly self-absorbed and not always that likeable. For all their faults, they will stick in your head – and I always feel that’s the mark of a well-written novel.
Thanks for reading; if you have any thoughts on The Truants I’d love to hear them, so do leave your comments below!