‘James Scudamore is now a force in the English novel,’ says Hilary Mantel on the cover of English Monsters, which, given that it’s his fourth book, has the whiff of a backhanded compliment (‘Have you lost weight?’). But despite its less exotic setting than his earlier novels, there is a reach and scope here that makes me think Mantel might be right.
This is an English public school story (come back!) that gives us four decades in the life of Max Denyer. Max’s jet-setting parents leave him in the care of the sort of sparky grandfather of whom Roald Dahl would approve (gadgets, projects, home-made cider vinegar: ‘Electric jolt. Scalp ripple. Stomach fire’) before sending him to an unnamed public school to ‘baste me with opportunities and watch me rise’.
This institution — more barracks than school, more prison than barracks — has the usual spread of penis pranks and bastard masters, and the writing in this part is puckish, full of controlled colour and —being set in 1987 — plenty of madeleines for the middle-aged: ZX Spectrums, ghetto blasters, the ubiquity of Dire Straits.
The rest of the book follows Max and his friends into the next three decades, with revelations of what happened at school, including the usual surprises. These sections are slow, but this aids plausibility, as the characters are unpeeled and the damage inflicted on them starts to bite. Max, it seems, is less damaged than those who attracted a certain teacher’s attention; and then it turns out that perhaps he isn’t.
English Monsters shares interests with Scudamore’s previous novel Wreaking — institutions, mental health — and one of its weak links too: a narrative sometimes too fragmented to build the drive that the epic scale demands. It flicks back and forward and makes a case for viewing life as a long game, even if the phrasing (‘The past was where it was at’) isn’t quite Faulknerian.
The title is from Henry V, when the king confronts his traitorous henchmen (‘See you, my princes and my noble peers, / These English monsters’), so loyalty is a theme — why do we feel attached to those who hurt us? — and the pages bubble with quiet rage about an elite education system that wrecks even those it elevates. Victory and surrender, Max reminds us, are not moments in time but processes, and I finished English Monsters with the sense that Scudamore is here for the long haul.