English Monsters is essentially an account of James Scudamore’s own experience of life at an English boarding school during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although it might seem as if he waited until his fourth novel before following the often trotted out advice to new authors to ‘write about what you know’, Scudamore’s second novel Heliopolis, based in Brazil, does portray some of the knowledge and experience he gained whilst living there for a time as a child. From what I have read about Brazil his depiction of its culture, the corruption and the deep divisions which underpin and undermine Brazilian society are fairly accurate. English Monsters, then, may equally be assumed to be a reliable portrait of the environment it is set in.
His parents live overseas so ten-year-old Max Denyer resides with his grandparents. Written in the first person, Max relates his grandfather’s nightly routine. How he starts drinking wine at five o’clock and goes to bed at nine. He recalls the idiosyncratic language his grandfather uses and the thrill when he asks Max to bring him another bottle.
“’Max!’ he said. ‘Be a good lad. Shin up that counter and fetch us that Frenchman.’”
Scudamore vividly depicts the sense it gives Max of being treated as trustworthy and almost grown up.
“The tingle of hearing my name on his voice: adrenalised excitement, well short of fear, but enlivening still. He knew just how to pitch it.”
At the start of the autumn term Max is sent to the boy’s boarding school a few miles away, only ever referred to as ‘up the hill’. The austere conditions are reminiscent of those which were allegedly rife in educational institutions during the 1930s, 40s, 50s and perhaps even 60s. It certainly came as a surprise to this reader, at least, that little seemed to have changed in the following two or three decades. There is the inevitable mix of horrible food, harsh punishments for minor misdemeanours and the volatile behaviour of masters. Max finds himself struggling to make sense of what conduct provokes the beatings.
“I wondered if what was happening was my fault. If I had been made permanently alien by living abroad as a young child. To those who had always been here it was logical that you could get beaten for breaking a rule you didn’t fully understand. That unscrubbed fingernails could lead to caning of the buttocks. That the wrong pair of shoes or the right pair of shoes improperly cleaned could cause you to be chucked around a room by someone impossibly powerful and angry.”
Fragile young boys pitched into unfamiliar surroundings and strict routines gradually form tentative friendships as they attempt to discover new identities for themselves. Over time we see them gain in confidence and grow as individuals.
“Some seemed to want to make clear that they despised the school for its grand pretensions (yet here they were). Others strutted in a different way, broadcasting that this was only a staging post in a journey they were now proudly completing.”
The friendships, once they’re cemented, for many last a lifetime. For Max, these friends consist of Simon Drake, a loner and a bit of an outsider, whom he meets as soon as he arrives. Luke and Ali Price, whose wealthy parents spend extended periods of time in their holiday home in Italy, and twins, Becky and Neil Lynch.
The title of the novel comes from Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, Act 2 Scene 2 in which the King punishes those who attempt to betray him. There are suspicions fairly early on of the abuse inflicted on some of the pupils, such as when the Deputy Head, Ian Crighton, known as Crimble to the youngsters, finds the homesick Max crying in his bed at night and takes him into his room to make him cocoa and show him his ham radio. The real horror of the story, however, doesn’t become clear until more than halfway through the book when Max and the others in his year are already in their early twenties, have left ‘the school up the hill’, have separately been to other schools to finish their elementary education and are finding their paths into university and professional life.
Divided into three sections the second and third tend to jump backwards and forwards in time at a slightly nauseating rate, not only in alternating chapters (which is an established literary device used by many writers), but often between paragraphs within the same chapter. This makes it occasionally quite difficult to know whether the narrative on the page relates to the past or the present. Max, himself, like many of his age, experiences a sense of disassociation between his real age, how he feels and looks and the relationships he maintains. Hindsight does little to diminish this sensation. He speculates:
“Like most twenty-year-olds, I thought myself fully grown, but when I look at photos of that time I see the frame of a boy. I liked a black overcoat and a Doc Marten boot. I had stupidly long hair which I never washed. My friendship with Holly was the best thing I had to show for myself. Friendship was nominally all it was.”
There are whole sections of the school experience that are left unexplained and, ultimately, remain unresolved at the end of the novel. The jump from when the boys leave and are reunited at a school reunion ten years later feels particularly jarring.
Following the reunion, the resumption of contact between the friends leads to various shocking revelations of precisely how embedded the sexual abuse was at the school and which of them were victims. We gain glimpses into what has become of the friends once they have gone their separate ways. Who has got married, which professional paths they’ve followed, the friendships they keep and how they regard their years at ‘the school up the hill’. Some of these views may utterly astound the reader.
The journey to self-discovery on which the reader accompanies Max is one which many will surely identify with as we tried to appear confident, yet felt ourselves paddling madly beneath invisible water. Max describes these feelings thus:
“I will be surprised to be told later in life that I looked like I had a plan during my twenties. As far as I’m concerned the decade is one accident after another. My mind will dutifully cobble the memories into sequence later on, but none of it happens by design. I flail around making bad decisions, blundering back on myself only to strike out in equally wrong directions, leaving a trail as random and irrelevant as a set of animal droppings.”
Any Cop?: Reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood, both in its anachronistic narrative structure and plot. Well written (mostly) and worth reading for fans of coming-of-age novels.