CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 21. . . .January 31, 2014
What We Hide.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2014.
275 pp., hardcover, $21.99.
Grades 8-10 / Ages 13-15.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
Reviewed from Advance Reader’s Copy.
Zero response in fifth form. Nico was tipping his chair, rocking on the two back legs.
“Excuse me, Jasper?”
“There’s something I don’t understand.”
Esther was so dependably dorky that everyone kind of loved her. She could distract a teacher for an entire lesson, following some teeny-weeny point down a bumpy, shadowy path.
“Well, it seems to me that each of us just sees the world, you know, the way we see it. Since we’re each living our own story. So wouldn’t that mean that - ”
“Yes!” Nico landed his chair legs with a thud. “Sorry to interrupt, Esther, but - ”
Esther's face was now the colour of Plum Loco lip gloss. Getting attention from Nico might be enough to cause a seizure.
“I think about this all the time,” said Nico. “Like, for instance, who is telling this story?”
“Which story?” Jasper seemed a bit bemused.
“This one!” said Nico. “The story of the English lesson on Friday morning in a shabby ex-stable that hasn’t had the windows washed in a hundred years. We have –“ he looked around – “sixteen stories in here, right? And all of them are true, right? According to the – ” he twitched his fingers to show that he was quoting – “narrators. But all of them are unreliable, if you’re one of the other fifteen people. So how can it be some literary genre, the unreliable narrator? There isn’t anything else.”
“That’s heavy, man,” said Adrian.
“I agree with Nico,” I said. My turn to get the sunshine of that amazing smile. “But...isn’t there a difference between someone telling a story from his – or her – point of view, and....and...” Suddenly, I didn’t want to finish the sentence.
“And purposely lying?” said Penelope.
“Misdirection is perhaps a more suitable term,” said Jasper. “In the literary sense. And that brings us back, thank you, to the unreliable narrator.”
Jenny and her brother Tom are Americans who head to England for school. Tom is avoiding the draft at the time of the Vietnam War by going to University in Sheffield. Jenny is going to a boarding school named Illington to study at the grade 11 level. Wanting to make an impression as the new girl at the school, Jenny tells a lie almost as soon as she arrives and then has to be careful to continue the fantasy she has created. She is not the only person at the school with something to hide; in fact, virtually every character in the book has a secret.
The novel is told from various students’ points of view and jumps from one to another in seemingly random order. Most of the chapters are written in the first person, but some vary the rhythm by being in the form of letters or movie scripts. At first, there seem to be too many strands, and it is difficult to be sure who is telling the story and what that person’s relationship is to other characters. Eventually, the facts all more or less come together although a few loose ends seem to remain. Some chapters are narrated by characters who do not seem pivotal to the plot, and so readers may question why it is necessary to hear their point of view.
While there is no clear turning point, there are several events which cause Jenny to mature from the time she leaves home until the end of her first school term By the end of the book, many of the characters have confessed to their lies and cover-ups, and Jenny resolves to return to the school for another term, but without pretending to be anything she isn’t. In a parallel situation, she encourages her brother Tom to return to university and to reality rather than being stoned much of the time.
While the novel’s main theme centres on being happy with oneself and not inventing any other persona, it also touches on other subjects, such as the difficulty of being gay in the era of the Vietnam War and in the setting of a boarding school. There are also many scenes which involve kissing and sex, obviously topics of great interest to students in their mid-teens. Many of these also add a touch of humour to the novel. Jenny, herself, also adds humour, particularly at the beginning of the book as she becomes accustomed to being a live-in student at a boarding school and as she shares details of life in a dormitory surrounded by other girls, ‘tweaking’ her uniform to be more stylish, and the misery of bland and often mysterious food served by cook Vera Diarrhea.
Characters in the novel not only learn about the intricacies of the British Constitution, but also how to be honest both with themselves and with others. Amidst the intrigues, drama and humour of the boarding school setting, the book’s characters are also learning valuable life lessons.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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