Boarding schools have always been fascinating to me. Imagine leaving your family behind to live with your friends in a venerable stone pile surrounded by playing fields and ancient trees. But also imagine the cruel teachers, snobby students and intense pressure inherent in the boarding school milieu. Boarding schools are ripe for all sorts of fiction—horror, mystery and coming-of-age. Authors have taken the setting as an opportunity to intensify teenage angst to a boiling point (Holden Caulfield, remember, starts out at a boarding school).
Something Dangerous by Patrick Redmond exploits the dark side of what we imagine boarding school in the 1950s to be like: repressive discipline, pressure to conform. Set in a remote seaside town with an imposing Gothic edifice, Kirston Abbey is the picture of malign schooling. The story is told from the perspective of Jonathon Palmer, a shy boy from new money finding his way in the school populated by aristocrats. Richard Rokeby, the handsomest, most academically gifted boy in school— who also happens to be the most mysterious– befriends Jonathon. Jonathon soon finds though that there is more to his new friend than he imagined. Straddling the line between thriller and horror, this first novel is impossible to put down.
Curtis Settenfeld’s Prep couldn’t be more different from Something Dangerous, but it is set in a boarding school. Lee Fiona is an outsider—coming to an elite prep school from the Midwest and not privy to their East coast, old money ways. Because most of us remember the teen years as being a study in exclusion, her experience is more universal than the setting would allow. The hardest thing for her at Ault is not that she is an outcast—it’s that she is nothing. One of the strongest points of this novel is the author doesn’t play on stereotypes when it comes to Lee—she may be surrounded by cardboard cutouts of teenagers, but Lee lives and breathes on every page.
Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris builds slowly to an unforgettable ending. Roy Straitley is a jaded classics professor about to retire from the prestigious St. Owald’s. However, a new teacher is intent on bringing the school down through deceit or even murder to avenge old wrongs. Told in alternating chapters narrated by Straitley and the perpetrator, this book keeps you guessing until the final twist. Throughout, Harris evokes the lovely smell of autumn and chalk dust while building her riveting plot.
As a bonus title, Whipping Boy by Allen Kurzweil is a non-fiction book about the author’s abuse at the hands of a bully at a Swiss boarding school, and then his 40-year search to find out what became of the boy. Part childhood memoir and part mystery, this book is more complicated than the description I just gave expresses. Although the boarding school aspect is relatively small, the whole rest of the book was so good it deserves a read.