Vicious circles

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Prep By Curtis Sittenfeld Picador pound;12.99

Gentlemen and Players By Joanne Harris Doubleday pound;14.99

May Contain Nuts By John O'Farrell Doubleday pound;12.99

School life alone is rarely enough to sustain a novel, but these three books all feature the added drama of an outsider trying to step into the charmed circle represented by top-drawer education. The most complex of the three is also set in the least familiar world, that of an elite Massachusetts public (prep) school of the sort that grooms the future rulers of the United States.

Lee, the 14-year-old narrator, arrives from the Midwest on a scholarship for which she has entered herself because life at Ault college sounds exciting and she assumes it will lift her out of her parents' limited sphere. She enters a world governed by invisible rules that divide insiders from hangers-on - staff as well as students. Here your place in the pecking order depends on what kind of duvet cover you bring from home and whether you use the launderette or the laundry service, but mainly on class, which settles like an invisibility cloak over the Ault estate.

As Lee watches and learns, the reader does too, so that by the end of the book I felt I could impersonate an East Coast mover and shaker, or perhaps a guest at a dinner party in Martha Stewart magazine. Most painful of all is Lee's terror of being appraised in her turn, and how quickly she learns to select safe companions whose opinion does not matter to her. In fact all of her fellow students are safe, because few of them give her a second thought until she dares to go public about life within the college walls.

The hallmarks of a Joanne Harris novel (food, rural France, thinly veiled passions and driven women with semi-magical powers) are almost entirely absent from Gentlemen and Players. Harris's new tale is set in the languages department of a tradition-bound grammar school (Harris formerly taught at Leeds grammar, but she assures her colleagues in the acknowledgments that any resemblance is not intentional). The book does not rely on the minutiae of school life for its impact. It's a strong psychological mystery in which St Oswald's is taunted by a secret "enemy within" who seeks to rock its foundations. The reader is drip-fed details of an ancient grudge rooted in the caretaker's cottage - within sight of the school, but usually out of mind - and the injured party's plans for a terrible revenge. Uncovering crucial facts in advance of the denouement only adds to the pleasure.

The chief target, who alternates chapters with his mysterious persecutor, is Latin master Roy Straitley, who is close to retirement, in poor health, allergic to email and management-speak, but still revered in the classroom.

Already feeling besieged by younger and self-aggrandising colleagues, Straitley is vulnerable to attack by an unsuspected source who first rattles his cage by stealing his mug and register; St Oswald's has not introduced e-registration. The assault on mind and body accelerates, with more victims along the way.

St Oswald's as an institution plays a central role of a benign and myopic dictator which has soaked up devotion and loyalty while shunning the world beyond its gates and is now facing payback time. An important theme in the book is Straitley's questioning of the rewards of his Mr-Chips-style career, and whether his past support for a culture of sacrifice for the school's sake might have been damaging to others. Besides the sharp representation of department politics, consideration is given to a universal truth of school life: every once in a while most teachers are confronted by a pupil that they simply can't stand. Straitley has two, a generation apart, who are both crucial to the plot and who both meet horrible deaths. It's not clear why the boy he most dislikes, with the obnoxious mother and the troublesome peanut allergy, is Jewish.

More pushy parents and food scares in John O'Farrell's novel, in which the focus is firmly on the outside world beyond the school gates, among recognisable caricatures of high-powered families caught in familiar dilemmas. O'Farrell has found easy prey for satire in the London borough of Wandsworth, where levels of parental anxiety in the secondary school selection season put the area almost level with upper Manhattan in the neuroses league table. Alice and her neighbours, eyes on the glittering prizes of the sought-after "Chelsea College" day school, drill their 11-year-olds in mental maths and manage terrifying coaching schedules, while chivvying younger siblings through nursery school sports day. The grotesque parent and child characters prepare us for an improbable plot in which Alice disguises herself as her own daughter for the selective exam at Chelsea.

A barrage of jokes, comic set-piece scenes and outtakes from the books of ancient wisdom and modern self-help on Alice's bedside table string out a slender tale in which Alice wins more sympathy than she deserves because she can laugh at herself. The consequences when her ruse succeeds lead her to some genuine heart-searching about the system she is perpetuating and the restrictive circles she moves in. The readers who feel most uncomfortable with the book can perhaps draw the most comfort from it.

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