A Separate Peace by John Knowles

a separate peaceHeart of darkness…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The book begins with an adult Gene returning to visit the school that he attended as a teenager during the middle years of the Second World War. We very quickly learn that some major event occurred during his time at school and that, in some way, this visit is intended to help him face up to his memories of that time.

In Gene’s memory, Finny is a kind of golden boy, an exceptional athlete and a natural leader who recognises no rules but his own. Gene loves and admires him and is proud to be counted as his closest friend. But in his heart he is also jealous that Finny is always the leader and Gene is merely one of his followers. Finny is the superior athlete and the more imaginative of the two; and the only way Gene can see to outdo him is in the academic side of things. But he knows for certain that Finny will be untouched even if Gene excels in his studies – partly because Finny doesn’t much care about classwork but, more importantly, because he is a truer, more honest friend than Gene, and will be pleased, rather than jealous, about his friend’s success. And feeling this – that Finny is untouchably superior and the better person – leaves Gene struggling to reconcile his love for Finny with the jealousy and irritation that this intense adolescent friendship brings him. And, more than that, he resents, but is unable to resist, being forced to follow Finny into dangerous activities – effortless to the athletic Finny but terrifying to Gene. And, one day, all of these feelings boil over for just one second – a second that will change both boys for ever…

In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left. Now here it was after all, preserved by some considerate hand with varnish and wax. Preserved along with it, like stale air in an unopened room, was the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn’t even known it was there.

The boys’ knowledge that they will be enlisted into the Army as soon as their schooling finishes is at the heart of the story. The parallels between Gene’s moment of madness and the bigger madness of the war are obvious, but handled with a subtlety that prevents the reader from feeling lectured to. These privileged boys don’t question that they will go off to fight – their families and school have made sure they understand it is their duty. Knowles shows very well how the need to hide any weakness from their peers means that the boys whip up a kind of self-induced enthusiasm for the war and all things martial, leading in turn to the ascendency of the athletic over the academic. And the microcosm of this enclosed little society mirrors the wider world, goading itself on to ever greater sacrifices in the name of war.

No locker room could have more pungent air than Devon’s; sweat predominated, but it was richly mingled with smells of paraffin and singed rubber, of soaked wool and liniment, and for those who could interpret it, of exhaustion, lost hope and triumph and bodies battling against each other. I thought it anything but a bad smell. It was pre-eminently the smell of the human body after it had been used to the limit, such a smell as has meaning and poignance for any athlete, just as it has for any lover.

This shortish novel is beautifully written. The New England landscape is vividly described, often in war-like metaphors, as we see it change through the seasons from the hot summer days to the deep frozen snows of winter. The life of the school is sketched with the lightest of touches and yet it becomes a place we feel we know and understand – a place in a kind of limbo, suspending its traditional role as educator and feeling rather uneasy in its temporary purpose of training and indoctrinating these young men to play their part in the war. And though the book rarely takes us beyond the school boundaries, we see how the boys are being affected by the news from outside, of battles and glorious victories and horrors in places they can’t even point to on a map.

Winter’s occupation seems to have conquered, overrun and destroyed everything, so that now there is no longer any resistance movement left in nature; all the juices are dead, every sprig of vitality snapped, and now winter itself, an old, corrupt, tired conqueror, loosens its grip on the desolation, recedes a little, grows careless in its watch; sick of victory and enfeebled by the absence of challenge, it begins to withdraw from the ruined countryside.

John Knowles
John Knowles

But the most special thing about the book is the truth of the characterisations. Gene’s first-person narrative is achingly honest in its portrayal of his emotions. Told as a memory from a distance, Knowles manages the difficult task of keeping the adolescent Gene’s emotions feeling fresh and immediate, while colouring the whole book with a kind of nostalgic regret. Finny is seen at a remove – adult Gene recounting his memories of younger Gene’s feelings about him – and has an almost mythic quality, as if surrounded by a golden aura. It’s a beautiful evocation of how nostalgia and grief tend to lead to an idealisation of a person once loved. A lovely book, intensely emotional and with a true heart.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

37 thoughts on “A Separate Peace by John Knowles

    • Yes, I was laughing at the Amazon UK reviews – there are 40 1-star reviews, nearly all from poor 15-year-old Americans forced to read the book at school! I’m betting it was a class project to write reviews…

  1. FictionFan – What a fine review! Thanks for reminding me of this terrific novel. Folks, do read it if you haven’t. And as for me, I must re-read it. There’s just no question of that. At all.

    • Thank you, Margot! 😀 It’s really a great piece of writing, this one – I love his use of language. Must investigate more of his work sometime, though I get the impression this was his best.

  2. Great review. The subject matter is not of particular interest to me personally, but the excerpts you have chosen here are absolutely beautifully written. I might have to give it a go, thanks FF!

    • Thanks, Lucy! 😀 I’m not hugely into coming-of-age novels either, but I really felt this was so much more than that. And the writing is absolutely beautiful – it’s one of these ones that you can pretty much pick a chapter at random and it will make a wonderful excerpt…

  3. Yes, I read this when I was in high school, but I think I was much too immature at the time to truly appreciate the content or the writing. Perhaps it’s time to revisit. And it’s short! 😀

    • I’m never convinced that making kids read classics is a good idea. I was just commenting in reply to booksandbuttons that there are 40 1-star reviews on Amazon UK, nearly all from poor 15-year-old Americans forced to read this – and worse, the teachers seem to have insisted on them learning all the ‘metaphors’ in the book, most of which I happily missed!

      I loved it, as you can tell, and yes, it’s beautifully short… 😀

  4. Fascinating to see someone else’s review of this. I read this (and 4 starred it) sometime last year, and had a few reservations, partly with some sympathy as to why ‘young people’ might not think this particularly apt. I think it is very much of time and place. I was interested and amused to see the different things we picked up on, whilst still appreciating it

    • Just popped across to see your review, which unusually I hadn’t remembered – I usually do! Yes, intriguing differences. I didn’t find the sex thing at all a problem, perhaps because I feel it’s generally far too OVER-emphasised in novels about adolescents, and so was quite glad he didn’t make it central. I also deliberately didn’t mention any ‘gay’ aspects because although I see from the 1-stars from depressed 15-year-olds that they seem to be teaching in schools that young boys can’t have intense male/male relationships without being gay, I absolutely don’t accept that as valid. (And think it’s an appalling thing for teachers to be saying, if they indeed are – no wonder so many kids spend their time in perpetual confusion.) From my recollection (and it was a long time ago) most 15/16 year-olds are still at that experimental, not quite sure stage, as regards sex – as enthralled with their close same-gender friends as with sexual attraction for either gender. And with boys in particular adolescence can go on well beyond 16. I reckon most adolescents can have some kind of sexual feelings, or at least thoughts, about their friends without that necessarily setting a pattern for life – in any direction.

      But I think the real difference is that I thought the adolescence side of the book played second fiddle to the war side of it. I didn’t feel it was a coming-of-age in the traditional sense – more a realisation of war’s effect on ‘normal’ life. It was as in the first quote the overhanging but unexpressed fear that seemed to me to be the main theme…

      Intriguing!

  5. Nice review, FEF! But it makes me wonder what that Gene brute does to Finny. He does do something, doesn’t he? (Did you know: I didn’t know Finny was a name till just a bit ago.)

    Oh, and what was he an athlete…for??? I mean, what’d he play?

    *grumbles ‘casue he can’t say anything about the picture*

    • Thank you! *smiles* D’you know, I don’t even have to make anything up this time, ‘cos the truth is the best – Finny was injured…by a tree!!! Though Gene did have something to do with it. (Short for Phineas…)

      Everything really – he was an all-rounder. All these silly American games, you know – rounders and such like. But he was also a great runner. (Sounds like the Pr… nah! Can’t be!)

      Ah, but you can! We’re safe! ‘Cos he’s dead… *chuckles wickedly then gasps*

      • This tree was very mean indeed! (Good point! You should write to him…) Weren’t you ever forced to read this one when you were a youngster then?

        Much shorter than the Professor’s…mops were probably rationed because of the war.

        *laughs* It does rather. And look at the size of his forehead – he must have had a huge brain… (Isn’t this fun?!)

        • No, I wasn’t… And here I thought it was a new book… *blushes*

          *laughs* Maybe mine is short, dadblameit!

          *laughing more* It is! I wonder if he put the brain to work… (Watch his son come on your blog!)

          • Oh! Then I shall add it to the list. It’ll be good for you.

            I’m not sure – I’m not convinced the mop is a wig…

            We definitely need a code – it’s no fun when we can’t ridicule people… (*gulps* I wonder if he looks like his Dad…)

            • No, have you? I can’t read it before you anyway ‘cos my review would be full of spoilers. And I’ve got to read The 5th Wave first… *quivers nervously*

              I wonder whether it would suit Mic?

              Hmm… well, we could call noses ‘Wilforks’ and extremely short hairdos could be ‘Diesels’. Large heads could be…hmm…Zeppelins. So Mr Knowles’ Wilfork makes him look cranky and it’s hard to tell if it’s his Diesel that gives him a Zeppelin. Of course, we may have to adapt the code for other people… (Ah! A peanut!)

            • Oh! I thought you’d forgot about that. It’s so…well, you might not like it. How do you feel about death and destruction and stupid teens?

              Umm…no, it wouldn’t. It really doesn’t suit me either.

              *laughing* Brilliant and creative! I’m taking a snapshot of this until I memorize the code.

            • No. But because I’m on a mission to be sweeter than usual, I’ve decided to let you off the hook re the readalong. See how nice I am? Funnily enough when I worked with teens I thought a lot about death and destruction…

              It does! I think you should wear it all the time.

              *laughing* Thank you – you’re very kind! I’ll have to try and find some …er… unusual looking authors…

    • Thanks! 😀 Definitely recommended – I thought the writing in this one was great – I could have found endless quotes to include, all as good as the ones here.

  6. Reading your reviews is my primary reason for visiting. I liked the excerpts – it sounds like a moving book, filled with feelings from that time in history. I’m a sucker for most things WWII, though I have not read many related books. Mostly film.

    • Thnak you, LR! 😀 I loved the writing in this one – I could have picked excerpts from nearly anywhere in it that were as good as these ones. I don’t read much about the war itself but I’m always interested in how it affected the people ‘back home’.

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s