Andreas Campomar

The early corridors of power

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Prep

Curtis Sittenfeld

Picador, pp. 406, £

Gentlemen & Players

Joanne Harris

Doubleday, pp. 512, £

Long after I had any need of it, I discovered one of the best pieces of advice on surviving one’s schooldays. Of course, it came from Cyril Connolly, though not from Enemies of Promise. I found it while at university in Connolly’s brilliant pastiche Where Engels Fears to Tread:

In every group there are boys whom it is the fashion to tease and bully; if you quickly spot them and join in, it will never occur to anyone to tease and bully you. Foxes do not hunt stoats.

From reading Prep and Gentlemen & Players, two very different approaches to the school novel, Connolly’s theory still holds true: either belong or go unnoticed, for what middle ground there is tends to be populated by the perennially eccentric and the terminally bullied. Both Sittenfeld and Harris have opted for ‘invisible’ protagonists, seemingly voyeuristic characters hovering on the fringes.

In Prep, Lee Fiora hails from unfashionable Indiana and wins a scholarship to Ault, a smart boarding school in Massachusetts. Although not encouraged to go by her middle-class parents, who later become an embarrassment to her, Lee is seduced by the school’s smart brochure and the life it promises: ‘I’d pretended it was about academics, but it has never been.’ In spite of her attempts not to be singled out, Lee becomes grouped with the school’s demi-monde: the ethnics and the ‘dorks’. Nevertheless, over the four-year period charted by the novel, Lee becomes part of the institution she feels so at odds with, and begins to be accepted. Yet, by the end of her senior year, all Lee’s good work is undone by a careless interview she gives to the New York Times.

Prep is an assured and very well-written début. Telling it in hindsight, with an acute attention to emotional detail, Sittenfeld does not fall prey to the traps this genre all too often lays for its authors: that of sentimentality and melodrama. The cool, pared-down prose mirrors Lee’s aloofness, which allows her to observe the social hierarchies at work within Ault. Sittenfeld is especially skilled at understanding how money impacts on class in that very American way.

Gentleman & Players is a brave, if ill- conceived, attempt at a difficult genre: the school novel as murder-mystery. Harris’s setting is St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, where the head porter’s precocious child, Synde, who attends the local comprehensive, gains access to the school and impersonates a pupil. The ruse, however, ends in tragedy. Years later, Synde reappears at St Oswald’s in the guise of a teacher intent on bringing this august institution to its knees.

Although Harris is adept at portraying the full horror of common room politics (having herself been a teacher of French), her writing lacks the bite and guile needed to pull off the profile of a psychopath like Synde. Roy Straitley, the hero as ageing classics master, whose voice alternates with that of Synde, is well-drawn, though Harris uses him as a sentimental mouthpiece for the failings of the present school system. The twist that acts as a denouement is far too fanciful to be believed, allowing the reader to ponder what might have been had Harris done her prep properly.