For some reason, it took me a while to get into this book. You would think that a book where a kid falls over and dies in the first chapter (during a doughnut eating contest) would immediately draw you in. Of course you want to know what happened. And you want to know why you’ve suddenly jumped back to the beginning of the school year when Skippy is alive and well.
But this book draws you in, slowly and surely, with the challenges faced by these students in this Irish boarding school. In most ways it’s high school like any other – there are popular kids and geeky kids, drugs, computer games, school dances, and fantasizing about girls you’ll probably never talk to. There’s cruelty and lying but also friendship. It’s that intense time of your life where everything matters.
It’s not an easy read. Murray introduces a lot of characters all at once, and many of them, like history teacher Howard Fallon, aren’t terribly likeable. Howard (called Howard the Coward) has a girlfriend he’s not terribly fond of, and fantasizes about the sexy new teacher subbing next door. He’s also struggling with being a half-assed teacher at the same school he went to, with his own dark memories of his high school years.
Ruprecht and Skippy are roommates at Seabrook College. Skippy is average-to-geeky, but Ruprecht is the nerdiest kid in school, and the smartest. When he’s not engaged in doughnut eating contests, Ruprecht is exploring different theories of the universe. The other kids make fun of him, but Skippy’s friendship keeps him somewhat accepted.
On the surface Skippy seems like he’s floating through life, but he’s dealing with a seriously ill mother, pressure from his swim coach about a big meet, and infatuation with a girl he’s only seen through a binocular at the girls’ school next door.
There’s a lot that rings true about this story, even if I’ve never been to an Irish boarding school. Even if these kids seem to have everything, their lives are a mess. And the tragedy that strikes Skippy impacts all of them.
This book is dark but surprisingly funny. I loved the dialogue. There’s a part where the boys talk about Frost’s The Road Not Taken, and I have to say I’ll never read that poem in quite the same way.
There’s a bigger issue here about Catholic boarding schools and whether priests should be teachers. The school is in the midst of a transition between the older Catholic priests and the younger, non-sectarian teachers and administrators. Since I feel utterly unqualified to comment, I’ll just say that it’s there.
I can see why this book received all the acclaim it did. The writing is intense, the story is complex and real. Murray seems to write the way teenagers really think and talk (says this reader who‘s pretty far from her teen years). I loved the ending even though I won’t tell you about it.
By the end I really cared about these characters and was glad to see some of them, especially Howard the Coward, really grow and develop. No stereotypes here, no easy answers, and Murray never goes easy on you. This is a dark book full of unhappy people. But the writing is so clever, so humorous, and so real, you won’t want to put it down.