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It has become a depressingly familiar scenario. Sirens wail, police vans surround a secondary school, often but not necessarily in a smaller American city, terrified children flee, and one or two adolescent youths, angry, alienated, and armed, are dead, along with whomever they were able to kill before their ammunition ran out. Later, the youths responsible are revealed as isolated loners, often the victims of bullying. Shocked officials vow to address the problem. Counsellors are brought in, anti-bullying programs are instituted and all goes back to normal until it happens again, in some other school, some other town. Indeed, the whole affair has become almost ritualized and only those most intimately involved, bereaved parents, devastated faculty, grieving students, are really touched by it.
In this debut novel, British author Simon Lelic has approached this narrative in a most original way. First of all, the school is in north London, not the US or Germany, where most such outrages have occurred. But more important, the shooter is not a bullied youth, but a bullied adult, a new teacher of history with a funny name, Samuel Szajkowski, few social skills, and a fatal inability to maintain discipline or even a semblance of order in his classes that are evidently comprised of children with a highly developed instinct for the jugular.
By the time the novel opens, Samuel has done his worst and five are dead - three children, one female teacher, and Samuel himself. DI Lucia May, herself a new hire in her otherwise all-male CID office, is sent to undertake what her boss thinks should be a brisk investigation. The killer, an obvious nutter, is dead and there's little more to be said than the usual sorry to the families of his victims. But perhaps because she's new on the job, perhaps because the scene at the school is so achingly sad, Lucia sets about a thorough investigation. Her interviews with the school staff, some of the children, and the parents of the victims are what constitute much of the story.
The taped interviews are extraordinary in that they are presented almost verbatim but with Lucia's interventions edited out. Lucia is transparent or perhaps like a priest in the confessional and we get to hear with no interference the sadness, puzzlement, and self-justifications of those intimately involved in what happened. We, like Lucia, have to piece together what was going on in this apparently ordinary, fairly well-regarded secondary school in an unremarkable London neighbourhood. And, like Lucia, we will ultimately be asked to come to some sort of judgement of these facts, some distribution of responsibility or blame. Most of those responding to Lucia are anxious to ensure that it does not land on them.
The interviews are interspersed with a narrative detailing Lucia's own experiences, especially in her otherwise all-male office, where the group dynamics are pretty much the same as those in the school. We have the bully, Walter, his sycophants, most of the rest of the squad, and a single disapproving figure who seems incapable of being much use. All are overseen by Chief Inspector Cole who is anxious to maintain a positive public face for the force, just like the headmaster of the beleaguered school. Both are more troubled by appearances than interested in justice.
This is a first novel, and it does have its lumpy bits, particularly in Lelic's handling of dialogue and his characterization, which is less subtle than I would wish. Still, he has staked out a claim in a territory of crime fiction where relatively few care to enter. At one point, Lucia asks herself, "Why was the onus always on the weak when it was the strong who had liberty to act? Why were the weak obliged to be so brave when the strong had licence to behave like such cowards?" In his insistent questioning of issues of social responsibility and individual complicity in evil, he reminds me of Minette Walters, especially in THE SHAPE OF SNAKES. That was, of course, a more accomplished novel, but in some ways Lelic's is even more troubling, because readers could, if they wanted to, distance themselves from Walters' characters on the grounds of social class, while Lelic never gives us even that out.
The school in question is one where we might send our own children, the teachers ordinary, responsible if cowardly souls, and the headmaster no different than many in his position, anxious to ensure that if terrible things happen, neither he nor the school need acknowledge guilt. As for the children, the lessons they are learning are the lessons of the herd - stay with the pack, obey the alpha male, or you will be picked off one by one and devoured. It is a disquieting vision, and one that lingers long after the last page is read.
A THOUSAND CUTS appears in the UK as RUPTURE.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2010
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Contact: Yvonne Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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