Review | Year of the Gadfly, Jennifer Miller

12224817In Greek philosophy, a gadfly was someone who, like Socrates, spurred people to action by relentless questioning. It is therefore an apt metaphor for an aspiring young journalist sent to a boarding school where the school’s reputation directs student publications. Jennifer Miller’s Year of the Gadfly lacks subtlety; it is Dead Poets Society within the shadowy world of The Skulls, and while the novel doesn’t always manage the delicate balance between drama and melodrama, it does hammer its point home.

Fourteen year old Iris Dupont is a journalist Rachel Berry, whose only friend is the imagined ghost of American journalist Edward R. Murrow. She stumbles upon an exciting scoop – the Prisom’s Party, a secret society in her boarding school recently revived to cause mischief in the name of standing up for the school’s founding principles. She also has an inspiring biology teacher, Jonah Kaplan, a former student of the school who, like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, is determined to break his students out of the mould. He demands they become extremophiles, bacteria who survived difficult conditions to eventually evolve into more complex life forms. His words spark a fire in Iris, and unlike her hesitant classmates, she immediately declares that she wants to be an extremophile.

The novel’s lack of subtlety is its major problem. For example, in case we miss the similarity, Miller has two of the characters watch Dead Poets Society on video, and one of them comments that it’s a boarding school movie that based on the atmosphere in the opening scenes, looks like it won’t end well. That’s not intertextuality, that’s hammering a point home.

A similar intensity is in the characters’ storytelling. Like the titular gadfly, they prod relentlessly, except in this case, the reader had gotten the point long ago, and the rest of the prodding merely becomes annoying. The story focuses on Iris’ ambition, Jonah’s dealing with an unnamed incident from the past, and Lily, an albino girl who dated Jonah’s brother while at school. A major theme throughout the novel is cruelty — the cruelty that teens can inflict upon one another, and the need to bring such incidents to light rather than hide them beneath a veneer of respectability. The problem is, even the characters we seem to be meant to cheer for cross the line, and while we don’t require them to be likeable, we at least expect them to be reasonable.

It takes a while to warm up to Iris — her earnestness teeters on the brink of preciousness, and her intellectualism tips right over into pretentiousness. That being said, her every action is infused with loneliness, and even when she snootily chides her mother for using a cliche, we can’t help but feel sorry for her need to find her place in the world. We also get glimpses of a friendship she used to have, and how its tragic end had a much deeper impact on Iris than perhaps she or even her parents can handle. She is also drawn strongly to Jonah, viewing him as a mentor and a potential friend, and when this bond is later jeopardized by her work on Prisom’s Party, we see how much this tears her apart, and we feel for her.

Jonah is, on one hand, the type of teacher we all wish we had — openly disdainful of the rules, and passionate about taking his students beyond the curriculum. There’s a touch of cruelty in him though that makes him much less a mentor figure than Robin Williams’ character. In an effort to push the boundaries and force his students to truly consider what being an extremophile means, he conducts a test that, while I see its purpose, is an extremely cruel thing to do to fourteen year old children. Not only will this get him fired in the real world, but his coldness in executing it compounds the horror of what he has inflicted. Perhaps this is just because Miller chooses to delve so deeply into Jonah’s life outside of teaching, but he seems to lack the passion for his students that had made Robin Williams’ character so effective. Rather, Jonah seems passionate about being right himself and about giving the finger to his alma mater. In this way, he shares Iris’ desire to carve his mark on the world, yet for a grown man, he still seems very much a sullen child.

The biggest problem, perhaps, is Prisom’s Party. Because the school is so desperate to gloss over their activities, it feels that we are meant to cheer on their revolution. Yet, similar to Jonah, they push things too far, and sometimes to little purpose other than making people take notice. In one scene for example, they convince an entire cafeteria to turn on one of the students, who hadn’t done anything wrong. As Iris noticed, some of the students didn’t even know why they were joining in, nor did they notice the student cowering in the centre. Prisom’s Party later explained that this was a test against mindless obedience, which indeed is an important subject, but victimizing a student simply to make a point crosses the line.

Iris, Jonah and Prisom’s Party are all puffed up with a feeling of self-importance, arguing that fighting for their principles justifies hurting other people. This isn’t quite as black and white in the book, of course, and Iris in particular, is all too aware of being in over her head at times. Still, the delivery is ham-fisted and relentlessly intense, such that even the ultimately tragic chapters on Lily almost feel like a welcome relief.

Year of the Gadfly could have used more subtlety and a lot more light-heartedness, but overall, it is an entertaining book, particularly for aspiring journalists or fans of the boarding school novel.


Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for an advance reading copy of this in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst

13414682I was attracted to this book because it reminded me of Brideshead Revisited, and I loved both Evelyn Waugh’s book and the 1980s TV series with Jeremy Irons. Brideshead for me however, lost something special the moment it shifted its focus from Charles and Sebastian’s friendship to Charles and Julia’s romance. I’d always been fascinated by the emotions brimming just beneath the surface between Charles and Sebastian, and considered Julia mostly a socially acceptable substitute, and one of the reasons I was disappointed in the 2008 movie is that it removed all subtlety and worse, depicted Charles as being in love with Julia from the very beginning.

Similar to Brideshead, The Stranger’s Child is at its strongest when describing the summer that George Sawle brought poet Cecil Valance to his family estate. George’s younger sister Daphne has a crush on Cecil, and an ambiguous poem he writes in her autograph book gives cause for a debate that spans generations. About a quarter of the way into the book, we learn that Cecil dies in the war, but that his poems live on, particularly the one he wrote while at George and Daphne’s house. Cecil’s motivations behind the poem are left unknown, and the question of whom he loved is left unanswered. Most of the book is about Cecil’s legacy, and the impact of his life — or rather the impact of how people interpret his life — upon future generations.

On one hand, Hollinghurst turns the basic concept of Brideshead into an intergenerational epic. This allows him to explore how attitudes towards homosexuality have changed over time, and how a character in contemporary times needn’t hide as George and Cecil may have.

On the other hand, there is a reason it is so believable for Cecil to have such an impact over generations — he is the most striking presence in the book, and his death leaves a gap not just in the other characters’ lives, but in the story itself. Other characters’ memories of him are significant insofar as the book takes a look at storytelling, and how perception shapes reality, particularly when it comes to historical figures. Unfortunately, none of the other characters possess Cecil’s charisma, and memories of Cecil pale in comparison to his presence.

The rest of the book pales in comparison to the first section, and despite it engaging with a larger breadth of issues, despite Hollinghurst’s lovely way with words, the story has, for the most part, lost its magic.

On an unrelated note, the cover of the paperback is absolutely beautiful, and I may keep my copy for that alone.


Thank you to Random House of Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

15749844What if you could live your life over and over, until you got it right? This intriguing premise informs Kate Atkinson’s new novel Life After Life, which begins with a woman named Ursula in November 1930, shooting Adolf Hitler. Flash backwards about twenty years, and Ursula is just being born in a quiet English town. She dies at birth. The narrative loops back a few hours earlier, again, we see Ursula being born, and this time, she survives. She lives a few years, then dies in an accident. She is born again, lives, and so on.

Unfortunately, the concept behind this novel is much more compelling than the novel itself. The story starts off slow — in order to establish Ursula’s unique situation, Atkinson gives her the unluckiest childhood ever — accidents and ailments befall her over and over again, only to have “darkness fall” over her, and loop us right back into that cold, snowy night in 1910 when she is born again. It is not so much unbelievable as it is predictable.

In a later scene, another character asks Ursula how she thought it would be like living your life over and over (look! clever meta moment!), and she responded that it sounded exhausting. On one hand, I do sympathize — Atkinson reveals how tired Ursula feels, as if she had “lived a hundred years.” On the other hand, reading about her string of reincarnations is wearying as well. There are moments I caught myself waiting for her to die, and I groaned when we returned to the moment of her birth — not again!

The story does pick up around the halfway mark, when Ursula herself becomes somewhat aware of her situation. She doesn’t completely understand it, but she does sense there’s something more going on than ordinary deja vu. Atkinson as well allows Ursula to live a bit longer each time, developing a bit more complexity and depth with each succeeding narrative. This, of course, is part of the conceit — the whole point of being able to live the same life over and over again is the ability to rectify your errors from the previous attempt. And despite Ursula’s limited understanding of her situation, she instinctively knows enough, for example, to discourage an overly aggressive man from kissing her the first time.

Unfortunately, this also diminishes much of the emotional impact. Each vignette is compelling, sometimes tragic, on its own, but knowing there’s the safety net of reincarnation made it difficult to care. At one point, when Ursula was trapped in an abusive relationship — a horrible situation, and one that would normally get me all worked up — all I could think was, how long until she dies in this life and starts again?

Worse, the narrative then suggests that Ursula is born over and over in order to fulfill a purpose, and until she accomplishes this purpose, she is doomed to keep repeating the cycle. The superhero/avenging angel twist is jarring, particularly after the quotidian nature of Ursula’s earlier experiences through her multiple lifetimes. I’ve suspended my disbelief throughout many of her lifetimes, as she learns each time and improves her next incarnation, but this just seemed not to fit. What began as Ursula’s very personal, private story shifted to a more public sphere, and to me, it felt tacked on. After all, and understandably, when the protagonist lives over and over again, how can you end it with a satisfying climax?

Life After Life has an interesting, and admittedly ambitious, premise. To be fair, I don’t know what else Atkinson could have done with the story that I would have liked better. Also to be fair, Atkinson is a talented writer, and even with the concerns I pointed out, I was compelled to keep reading. However, the story failed to live up to the promise of its concept.


Thank you to Random House Canada for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.