The book begins after it comes out that Victoria, a teenager at high school, has been having an affair with her music teacher Mr Saladin. However, it’s not really about their relationship, but the aftermath for everyone else. What actually happened between Victoria and Mr Saladin is never clear and becomes more blurred as rumours spread amongst the girls at her school. The girls aren’t shocked or disapproving, but do feel jealous that she was ‘chosen’ and has experienced things they haven’t, and annoyed that she didn’t tell them what was going on.
The chapters alternate between the girls at her school (mainly in their saxophone lessons) and the story of Stanley, who has recently enrolled at a nearby drama college. At the end of Stanley’s first year his group has to perform a devised play, and they make the scandal at the nearby school their topic.
The teenage-girl chapters are non-linear, and the perspective, style and time of the sections in the chapter changes frequently (occasionally mid-sentence). Some sections of these chapters are also the thoughts and fantasies of the saxophone teacher, and it’s not always obvious at first what is real and what is not. Until you click into what goes where, it is confusing. The Stanley chapters are more consistent in style, and it’s easier to immediately place its non-linear sections in time.
It seems to be a book partly about the roles people play, and how they come to be playing them. Most of the adult characters are not named (they are ‘the Head of Acting’ or ‘the saxophone teacher’). I can’t decide if this is because the adults are inter-changeable in the lives of the teenagers, or because the adults have found their ‘roles’ while the teenagers are still playing at being different things. Maybe both. Nearly every character plays the role of ‘outsider’ but in different ways, and the teenage girls talk about wanting to be the victim (as an identity). To be different is desired, but only if it’s in the right way. All this is particularly apparent when a character, who nobody much cared about, dies, and the girls are ‘playing at’ grief and largely forget the dead girl because she was the dull kind of outsider, despite becoming a ‘victim’.
There’s also a lot about the relationships between adults and teenagers. Some are abusive, though not illegally so (like the saxophone teacher, manipulating two of her students to get together so she can vicariously find a happy ending for her own past failed relationship). Others simply highlight the misunderstanding of priorities between them (the awful counsellor and the anxious mothers don’t ever really understand what the Victoria-Saladin affair means for and to the girls).
An interesting coming-of-age novel with some beautiful bits of writing, but ultimately, for me, a bit too clever for its own good. I found it thought-provoking and readable and even funny in places, but at the same time didn’t feel that I was enjoying it while reading. Too many aspects felt like they were shouting Literary Devices, where I prefer things a bit more subtle and that feel more than just a device. Oddly, the further I get away from it, the more I like it. Maybe one that needs time to simmer? Nevertheless, I think I will be giving the 900-page, Booker-winning The Luminaries a miss.