Sunday, November 16, 2014

the last book I read

Schooling by Heather McGowan.

Catrine Evans is 13, and her American mother has recently died, so her Welsh father has brought them back to Britain and enrolled her at Monstead, the boarding school he went to as a boy. Cue lots of spiffing japes involving midnight feasts, raids on the tuck shop, hockey practice and hiding from Matron in the sanatorium, right? Weeeeeell, sort of.

Catrine is a spiky, self-possessed and intelligent girl, but with a few challenging events to deal with in her recent past, including the death of her mother, obviously, but also an incident before that involving her American friend Isabelle where they rolled an old car tyre they found in the woods down a hill towards a busy road and knocked a motorcyclist off his bike into the grass verge. Did they kill him? Is she a fugitive from justice? Who knows?

Catrine makes some friends at school, some wisely-chosen, some not: glue-sniffing delinquent Brickie, arsonist Aurora (soon to be expelled for burning down the cricket pavilion) and future head boy material Owen Wharton. She also gets to know some of the teachers, most notably awkward Mr. Betts the English teacher and the more obviously friendly and welcoming Mr. Gilbert the chemistry teacher who also does a bit of art tuition on the side.

Catrine and Mr. Gilbert soon strike up a friendship that extends beyond the normal pupil-teacher relationship, and soon extends into areas that might legitimately be cause for some concern - she poses for a painting, the description rather coyly not specifying exactly what (if anything) she's wearing for the session, and at the end of the book Mr. Gilbert organises an art tuition trip with some amateur pupils which he arranges for Catrine to attend as well, thus getting them both away from the school environment with its stifling notions of appropriate pupil-teacher relations. At this point stuffy old Mr. Betts comes up trumps by turning up to rescue her and whisk her away back to her father.

At least, that's what appears to happen, but it's hard to be sure since the book is written in an intense stream-of-consciousness style that doesn't offer the reader much context for what's going on at any point, and provides a viewpoint that can't necessarily always be trusted. The style makes it more of a challenge to read, as well, and it's interesting to speculate whether the book would have been any better if it had been written in a more orthodox way. Schooling was Heather McGowan's first novel (published in 2001) and there's a suspicion of a bit of stylistic throwing of the kitchen sink at it to make it memorable, whereas perhaps just telling the story in a more linear way would have resulted in a more satisfying, though less ambitious, book. The decision to frame the last chapter (15 pages or so) as a single-paragraph wall of text seems to deliberately invite comparisons to James Joyce's Ulysses, the canonical stream-of-consciousness novel, comparisons which, for all Schooling's merits, can't really end well. My conscience dictates that I should point out here that I have a Penguin copy of Ulysses on my shelves which I have yet to get round to reading.

The subject matter has a queasy fascination to anyone who's read Lolita; another strange parallel is that my Faber & Faber paperback carries a cover image of Thérèse by Balthus from 1938, while the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Lolita carries an image of the same artist's Girl With Cat from 1937. Both are slightly disturbingly sexualised images of clearly underage girls in poses of varying degrees of upskirtiness. Interestingly some of the other editions of Schooling zoom in on the image to reduce it to an area of jailbait-y thigh and knee; I'm not sure whether this makes it better or worse.

Some trainspottery facts for you: Heather McGowan is the second Heather to appear in this list after Heather Lewis in August 2011, and Schooling is the 42nd of the 194 books in this list to have a one-word title.

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