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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.
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.