‘A Separate Peace’ by John Knowles

SeparatePeace

Fiction – paperback; Bantam USA; 208 pages; 1975.

John Knowles’ A Separate Peace is well known as a set text in the USA, but I first heard of it only a matter of weeks ago when I read an intriguing review by Trevor Barrett on The Mookse and the Gripes blog. I immediately scoured the internet for a cheap copy and managed to find one listed on BookMooch, which was soon whizzing its way across the Atlantic.

The novel (first published in 1959) is set in a boarding school called Devon, which is “sometimes considered the most beautiful school in New England”. The story is told through the eyes of Gene Forrester, a past student, who returns 15 years after graduation and stands among the pleasant surrounds — all “varnish and wax” — and recalls one particular year during World War II which shaped the rest of his life.

Here, in the summer of 1942, Gene was a quiet bookish boy and his best friend and room-mate Phineas (sometimes dubbed Finny) was an extroverted, athletic type who charmed students and adults alike. We learn pretty much from the start that Finny is a bit of a daredevil but that he gets away with it.

The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations, a model boy who was most comfortable in the truant’s corner. The faculty threw up its hands over Phineas, and so loosened its grip on all of us.

Meanwhile Gene, desperate not to lose face with his friend, succumbs to peer pressure and cuts class, misses meals and skips chapel — often against his better judgment. And it is this crucial inability to say “no” that lands Gene in trouble. To say more would reveal crucial plot spoilers, which makes it almost impossible to review this book properly, but if you think of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies you’ll come to understand the dark heart that beats very strongly at the centre of this novel.

Of course there’s an exterior darkness looming over the story too in the form of the war, although it all seems rather remote to Gene, Finny and their fellow 16-year-old students, just a year away from the draft:

We saw nothing real of it; all our impressions of the war were in the false medium of two dimensions — photographs in the papers and magazines, newsreels, posters — or artificially conveyed to us by a voice on the radio, or headlines across the top of a newspaper.

Indeed, Finny is so cut off from the horrors of the war he doesn’t believe it it is true. At one point he suggests it is nothing more that a conspiracy created by a “bunch of calculating fat old men who don’t want us crowding them out of their jobs”. But to Gene, the clever intellectual one, it is more real; in fact he describes it at his defining moment and 15 years on claims he still “instinctively lives and thinks in its atmosphere”.

A Separate Peace is a beautifully wise and knowing book. There’s no driving narrative to force you to keep reading save for a desire to learn what becomes of this fraught friendship between two completely different teenage boys, and yet I couldn’t put it down. It encapsulates everything that is wonderful and good in 20th century literature, coupled with an intelligence that belies its simple premise.

Truman Capote, one of my favourite writers, described it as “a quietly vital and cleanly written novel that moves, page by page, toward a most interesting target” — and he is completely right. This is a lovely gem of a novel and I’m so glad to have discovered it via Trevor’s blog.

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7 thoughts on “‘A Separate Peace’ by John Knowles

  1. Sadly, this book was ruined for me by a teacher at school. We read this in year 10 and I absolutely hated the way it was handled and taught, so the book always brings up bad memories for me. I was nice to read your good review of it, though.
    The same teacher ruined Ethan Frome for me, so I’ve stayed away from anything and everything by Wharton.

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  2. Kinuk, what a shame that a teacher ruined this for you, because it’s such a great book. I feel the same way about The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was a set text when I was 15, and went way over my head — I have hated spy novels, or anything to do with the Cold War, ever since. I’m not a big fan of Wharton, but I read Ethan Frome about 15 years ago and loved it, so it’s a pity you’ve been put off that book too.

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  3. Thanks for the review. I ordered a cheap second hand “Like new” copy 5 minutes ago, because this seems just the kind of book I would like.
    Did you check out the 1-star reviews at Amazon.co.uk? Really interesting: dozens of school children who were forced to read this book and thought it completely boring and utter garbage. Obviously a lot of teachers have no idea what sort of literature appeals to teenagers.
    By the way, I read Ethan Frome when I was in my twenties and loved it, but maybe I would have been bored and/or puzzled by it if I had read it at age 16. A lot of great books are simply not right for teenagers.

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  4. Kim,
    It may be a good idea to give it another try. Anna van Gelden is right:teachers sometimes don’t know what appeals to teenagers or how to teach the book. I remember my teacher insisting on the fact that Gene was in love with Finny and that the underlying homosexuality was a strong theme. My friends and I remember seeing not one bit of homosexuality, but we may have been too young to notice it.

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  5. Anna, I didn’t see the reviews on Amazon, but you’ve piqued my interest so I must go along and check them out. I do think this is a very adult book, by which I mean there’s a lot of big, serious themes going on here, and just because it features two teenage boys in the main roles, I doubt whether many young teenagers would understand the gist of half of it. In many ways it’s a book about mortality, and when you’re 16 years old — even with a war looming — I doubt whether you really get the fact that life can sometimes be cut short.
    Katherine and Callista, it’s nice to hear that you both read it at school and not only survived the experience but still have fond memories of the book. Perhaps you were lucky and had very good teachers?
    Kinuk, I have to admit the notion of homosexuality never even crossed my mind. There’s obviously a kind of love-hate thing going on between these lads, but I don’t think it has much to do with sex… although I could be wrong.

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