Author, Book review, Christophe Dufosse, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘School’s Out’ by Christophe Dufosse


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.

2 thoughts on “‘School’s Out’ by Christophe Dufosse”

  1. Even though you did not highly recommend this book, I still went to my local bookstore to check it out and see if I liked it. It was because of this book that I ended up finding one of my top ten favorite books, The Shoe Queen by Anna Davis. Just wanted to say thanks and your blog is so informative! I like your opinions.


  2. Pierre Hoffman, the narrator of Christophe Dufossé’s eerie first novel, is a 32-year-old schoolteacher who works in a rural French town. The story opens with the suicide of a colleague, Éric Capadis, who has been teaching 9F, a class composed of boys and girls aged between 14 and 15. No one understands why Capadis threw himself out of the classroom window, but Hoffman discovers his reasons surely and steadily as the plot unfolds. Capadis, he learns, was very much a loner. Although still in his 20s, his hair had already begun to turn grey. Hoffman resembles him in several ways, not least in his fear of physical and emotional involvement. Éric and Pierre are familiar characters – outsiders, sure of little beyond their own doubts. I have been meeting them all my reading life, in various guises, in the fiction of Gide, Sartre, Camus and dozens of lesser writers.
    The year is 1995; the action takes place from February to May. Whenever Pierre stops to notice the weather, it’s of the kind that suits his despairing temperament: the sky is white, the trees bereft of leaves, and every bird is a harbinger of doom. Pierre lives in a council flat no self-respecting estate agent would enjoy selling. He goes to parties arranged by other members of staff and relishes the spectacle of his fellow teachers getting drunk and behaving disgracefully. He is propositioned twice that spring – by a blowsy female hairdresser on the afternoon of Éric’s funeral, and by a gay man in the local park. They fail to excite his libido, which is stirred only by an Arab nurse called Nora and by his sister Léonore, unhappily married to a kindly man who is bewildered by her indifference towards him.
    Class 9F would have inspired Mr Chips to say goodbye after a single lesson. These children are Gallic to the core, briefed as they are in the finer nuances of existential gloom. Chernobyl and Aids have convinced them that the future is black, not orange. However, they lack the robust good humour of Beckett or Emil Cioran. Whenever they talk to Pierre, they sound like Heidegger on a particularly oppressive day. Dufossé chooses not to make them memorably distinguishable, and if I cannot reveal why he does so it is in the best interests of potential readers.
    Dufossé makes his debt to Stephen King clear in one of the novel’s two epigraphs. There is a vague air of menace throughout the overlong narrative, but this is the least riveting aspect of the novel. The scenes with Éric’s parents, in their kitsch-ridden house, and with Pierre and his disturbed sister show Dufossé to be a shrewd observer of eccentric behaviour. I was convinced by the book even while its plot was in abeyance, as Pierre – contemplating the perpetually white sky – tries to find his raison d’être. Shaun Whiteside’s translation expertly captures the slightly dispiriting spirit of the original text.


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