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by Christophe Dufossé
Penguin, May 2007
336 pages
ISBN: 0143038117

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

SCHOOL'S OUT has the murky, epic atmosphere of the classic gothics; the protagonist is swept along in a threatening world, longing for contact, unable to know who to trust, while forces greater than himself pull him into an undertow of inevitability. And thus I have the same reaction as I have to great novels like WUTHERING HEIGHTS and THE TURN OF THE SCREW – I want to march through the cast dispensing Prozac and swift kicks in equal amounts.

Eric Capadis was the history teacher for class 9F, a set of students who have been together since primary school. When Eric suddenly commits suicide by jumping out of a window just before the end of term, Pierre Hoffman, a new French teacher, finds himself ordered to take over.

Pierre is young, unattached, perversely proud of his empty apartment and his disconnected life, and prone to using phrases like "post-modern miserablism." From the moment he faces the ultra-polite classroom he thinks there is something sinister about the children, one of whom warns him to transfer out before the students "get inside your loneliness the way they did with Monsieur Capadis."

But just taking the class and being seen talking to the teacher set the forces in motion; the prank phone calls and maggot-filled packages arrive almost immediately. On the first day of classes after break, the student who talked to him is brutally mutilated.

Trying to figure out what is happening, Pierre begins asking questions. Why do all of the other teachers avoid the children of 9F? Why have the students never been parted – except by death? Who hurt Claire, and why is one of the other students suddenly deliberately making himself sick? He finds that Capadis was not the first sudden death connected to the class. Is Pierre next?

Dufossé, via Shaun Whiteside's translation, makes the most violent scenes lyrical and soft-focused. The language is beautiful, the tone evocative.

The characters, though, are annoying. I found Pierre annoyingly passive (he faints when he receives the disgusting package, but never seems to even consider calling the police) and neurotic (I'd be more impressed by his fear of the students if he hadn't already had a panic attack at a dog and compared the school to a crematorium). When we hit the stereotypically Gallic scene where Pierre internally mourns his inability to communicate with his sister while externally refusing to break into her chain-smoking monologue about their mother's infidelities, I lost all sympathy – and interest – when he decides to take the idea of making contact a little too literally by groping her.

If you like the classic gothics, you may well enjoy the sweeping atmosphere of SCHOOL'S OUT. But if you like your characters to have a little bit of backbone and more than the minimum of brains, go back to JANE EYRE.

Reviewed by Linnea Dodson, June 2007

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