Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 400 pages; 2007. Translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside.
I’m not sure what it is with modern French novels, because I never really seem to enjoy them despite the fact that the blurb makes them sound fantastic. The cover of Christophe Dufosse’s School’s Out boasted all kinds of glowing reviews from “cool, sexy and sinister” to “forcibly reminds one of Donna Tart’s A Secret History“. And the note about the author on the first page said it had been translated into 10 languages and was the winner of the Prix Premier Roman, which is a French prize for first novels (I think?), so how could I go wrong?
The story opens with the death of a young teacher at a secondary school. He has killed himself by leaping out of a classroom window and it is largely thought that his class of unruly 13-year-old students are to blame. But when Pierre Hoffman takes over the class for the rest of the school year he finds the students incredibly well-behaved, quiet and submissive. But he soon learns that there is something slightly abnormal about them, as if they are “existing only as a whole, in a group”. Cue spooky music here…
Despite this promising start, the story, in my opinion, runs out of steam.
It didn’t help that I found the narrator to be incredibly detached and annoyingly philosophical. The prose style reminded me of Michel Hoeullebecq, but without the sense of humour. Perhaps it lost something in translation? Not that it read oddly, indeed some of the descriptions are pitch-perfect, such as this one:
The light outside was starting to fade. It was a few minutes past noon, and the grey sky of Normandy was already turning a shimmering black. The wind couldn’t blow away the rain, a fine, solid rain that hurtled down in sudden pockets like the impetuous whirl of a flock of sparrows. It flew at the service station windows and climbed horizontally up the car park, sweeping the asphalt at an oblique angle. From where we were standing, we could hear a faint whistle from the trees and bushes. Time stopped abruptly as though there had been some sort of breakdown in our continuity.
But it went off on so many tangents that the crux of the story — a class of teenagers that have sinister intentions — got lost in the mix. Not once did I want to furiously turn the page to find out what happened next. Not once did I feel the slow-burn of menace that I had expected to resonate off the page. The entire narrative lacked oomph or any sense of urgency.
The exciting stuff comes right at the very end — yes, somewhere about page 312 of a 316-page book — and even then it’s not all that exciting. In fact, it seems somehow unreal and a little bit ludicrous. And I won’t even mention the epilogue!
Frankly, a disappointing book and one I wished I’d never bothered reading.