The Truants by Kate Weinberg – review

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!

Milestones

I like to think of life as a compilation of tiny moments, an almost infinite multitude of conversations, daydreams, sights, sounds and feelings that combine to make our existence unique.  Every so often, among the mundane and the everyday, something comes along that will stand out in the memory or maybe give us a little nudge onto a slightly different path.  These markers could be anything and everyone has their own; as this is a book blog of course I am going to be talking about the reading experiences that have become my milestones.  There are books that I can still recall clearly years later, purely because they were somehow significant to my life at the time and I remember exactly where I was, literally and metaphorically, when they made their way into my hands.  It would be an exaggeration to say that a book has ever changed my life – I’ve come across a number of people who feel that’s happened for them, but for me it’s always been a subtle influence rather than a revelation.

As a child I was excessively anxious about trying anything new in any area of my life, including books.  I find it strange to think back on that nervousness now when as an adult I’m so keen to discover new things that I barely return to anything – but in my childhood I was (like many children I imagine) incredibly stubborn in my resolve to cling to the familiar.  I stuck to reading series of books by authors that continually re-trod old ground: Enid Blyton’s seemingly never ending body of work was a particular favourite.  Eventually my parents, frustrated by my refusal to venture into new territory, bought me “Mossflower” by Brian Jacques.  I’d never read anything like it before, and I have a very vivid memory of planning to read a couple of chapters before declaring I didn’t like it so I’d be allowed to return to my beloved Famous Five!  As it turned out, no such manipulation of my poor parents was required, as I fell in love with it as I’d almost never fallen in love with anything before.  I still have the large collection of his books that I ended up amassing, and I look on “Mossflower” as the book that switched off my fear of the unknown.  From then on I never looked back, and I think that’s where my desire to be as widely read as possible first started.

Despite being an avid reader by the time I reached secondary school, I remember finding the set texts in the early years pretty uninspiring (I loathed “Flambards” and “Moonfleet” with a passion!) yet I went on to study English literature all the way through university.  The book that I think made me want to do that?  “Middlemarch” – one of my mum’s favourite books and still one of mine today.  I remember sitting in my bedroom squeezed into the space between the bed and the window, sun pouring in, and thinking that I had never come across anything this complex or elegantly written before.  It was the first of many discoveries that led to some amazing years spent studying literature, a choice of subject I loved and have never regretted.

Life, however, is invariably full of ruts and the milestone book that shook me out of another one was “The Secret History”.  I came across it when I first started working in the book trade in my early twenties, and discovered pretty quickly that this was the book my new colleagues raved about with complete unanimity.  Up until that point I’d been primarily a classics sort of girl and contemporary fiction hadn’t held much appeal for me.  Then Donna Tartt’s phenomenal novel blew my mind.  I carried it around with me literally everywhere for two days, reading in the oddest places whenever I got a few minutes, and I will always hold it up as being the book that turned me onto modern fiction writing.

I would love to know if there are any books that you think of as being milestones in your life.  Which book made you fall in love with reading?  Is there a book that completely changed the way you thought about something?  As always I would love you to share your thoughts here on Girl, Reading!