John Knowles' A Separate Peace is well known as a set text in the USA, but I first heard of it only a matter of weeks ago when I read an intriguing review by Trevor Barrett on The Mookse and the Gripes blog. I immediately scoured the internet for a cheap copy and managed to find one listed on BookMooch, which was soon whizzing its way across the Atlantic.
The novel (first published in 1959) is set in a boarding school called Devon, which is "sometimes considered the most beautiful school in New England". The story is told through the eyes of Gene Forrester, a past student, who returns 15 years after graduation and stands among the pleasant surrounds -- all "varnish and wax" -- and recalls one particular year during World War II which shaped the rest of his life.
Here, in the summer of 1942, Gene was a quiet bookish boy and his best friend and room-mate Phineas (sometimes dubbed Finny) was an extroverted, athletic type who charmed students and adults alike. We learn pretty much from the start that Finny is a bit of a daredevil but that he gets away with it.
The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations, a model boy who was most comfortable in the truant's corner. The faculty threw up its hands over Phineas, and so loosened its grip on all of us.
Meanwhile Gene, desperate not to lose face with his friend, succumbs to peer pressure and cuts class, misses meals and skips chapel -- often against his better judgment. And it is this crucial inability to say "no" that lands Gene in trouble. To say more would reveal crucial plot spoilers, which makes it almost impossible to review this book properly, but if you think of William Golding's Lord of the Flies you'll come to understand the dark heart that beats very strongly at the centre of this novel.
Of course there's an exterior darkness looming over the story too in the form of the war, although it all seems rather remote to Gene, Finny and their fellow 16-year-old students, just a year away from the draft:
We saw nothing real of it; all our impressions of the war were in the false medium of two dimensions -- photographs in the papers and magazines, newsreels, posters -- or artificially conveyed to us by a voice on the radio, or headlines across the top of a newspaper.
Indeed, Finny is so cut off from the horrors of the war he doesn't believe it it is true. At one point he suggests it is nothing more that a conspiracy created by a "bunch of calculating fat old men who don't want us crowding them out of their jobs". But to Gene, the clever intellectual one, it is more real; in fact he describes it at his defining moment and 15 years on claims he still "instinctively lives and thinks in its atmosphere".
A Separate Peace is a beautifully wise and knowing book. There's no driving narrative to force you to keep reading save for a desire to learn what becomes of this fraught friendship between two completely different teenage boys, and yet I couldn't put it down. It encapsulates everything that is wonderful and good in 20th century literature, coupled with an intelligence that belies its simple premise.
Truman Capote, one of my favourite writers, described it as "a quietly vital and cleanly written novel that moves, page by page, toward a most interesting target" -- and he is completely right. This is a lovely gem of a novel and I'm so glad to have discovered it via Trevor's blog.