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by Tara Isabella Burton
Simon and Schuster, March 2022
320 pages
ISBN: 1982170069

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Tara Isabella Burton has a way with words. She is a religion writer for Vox and other media outlets who covers topics such as how Trump acolytes and "Goopsters" (devotees of Gwyneth Paltrow) share a longing for transcendence--they just didn't have enough transcendent experiences, apparently.

In her second novel, psychological thriller THE WORLD CANNOT GIVE, Burton writes in searing prose poetry, thrilling with mystical repetition, and it's catchy. "Laura's parents have reminded her--so many times--that St. Dunstan's is a real school, populated by real people, with real classes and real athletics and real college matriculation statistics," Burton narrates.

Said tony boarding school is in Maine, in the twenty-first century, but it doesn't seem like any other high school or American institution. It's named for a London saint with a reputation for wizardry, sounds like Hogwarts, and suspiciously resembles Oxford, where Burton earned her PhD in theology. Like Oxford, St. Dunstan's has ecclesiastic architecture, English dons, and students who think they're incredibly special and brilliant just because they are there. It doesn't have a student food pantry, a tutoring center, or students who work their way through or live on ramen or spaghetti and ketchup. In fact, the hot off-campus eatery caters to students with rarefied elite tastes, offering waffles with names that allude to nineteenth century white male literary classics, like "Call Me Fish Pail" (Ishmael) and "Lime of the Ancient Mariner."

Heroine Laura Stearns is not really recognizable as a twenty-first-century American teenager, even an unusually bright one. She "cries when the slant rhymes surprise" her, wants to attend St. Dunstan's as desperately as many eight-year-olds wish to become Potter's classmate, and doesn't have much involvement with the internet or pop culture.

Laura finds that twenty-first-century St. Dunstan's is caught between romantic but stultifying tradition and what her favorite writer, St. Dunstan's alumnus Sebastian Webster, calls "the sclerotic modern world." Webster is Stearns's idol, attended St. Dustan's in the 1930s, and died fighting in the Spanish Civil War--for Franco. But he's not a Fascist, she insists. He was just passionate about preserving tradition and resisting modernity, or some such rot. He's liberal enough to think ecumenically, though: although he's a Catholic fascist, his famous novel is titled All Before Them, a nod to Protestant John Milton's epic Paradise Lost.

The point of this novel is that we need tradition, mysticism, metaphysics, or something like that, because without it, life is just dreadful. The bright young things of St. Dunstan's find this experience in Evensong, which is controversial, and threatened with abolition by "Chairman Zhao," which is what they call their Chinese-American classmate Isabel Zhao. Poor Isabel's classmates believe that she "gets off on destroying things," and that "that's the problem with Isabel Zhao--or people like Isabel Zhao--always looking to criticize, to tear things down, they don't care about Evensong, or St. Dunstan's, or beauty or art at all." While this interior monologue of Laura's sounds as if Burton is setting her up to confront her racism, that never explicitly happens. Instead, the school is destroyed by conflict between Zhao and her faction, and that of sexy sexy chorister Virginia, a dark-haired, exotically beautiful ethnic Jewish girl who has converted to Catholicism but, like a lot of other "exotic" women in books much older than Burton's, deploys her sex appeal in destructive ways.

Although Burton moralizes about Laura's casual reverence for Sebastian Webster's fascism, she unfortunately includes plenty of stereotypes that Webster would be wholly comfortable with. Isabel is an Asian-American overachiever who dares to decolonize elite education. Lesbians protest things and end up dead. A male teacher is overwhelmed by devious, seductive bad girl behavior. In the end, the world of THE WORLD CANNOT GIVE is predictable, flat, and ugly.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, February 2022

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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