A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox vulpes libris : small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard. This is the story of Peter, Katarina and August — three damaged children in an experimental school in Copenhagen in the s. Others, like middle-class Katharine, perform well in tests but are extremely traumatised, in her case due to the death of her mother followed by the suicide of her father.
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The narrator of "Borderliners," Peter Hoeg's new novel, is a man whose lifelong obsession with time-its history, physics and meaning-frames his account of a childhood trauma that nearly destroyed his life. In this brooding, austere tale, set in a state-run orphanage and a prosperous private school, we witness the subtle tyranny of adults and its consequences, both real and imagined, through the eyes of the pupils and wards. That the dissection and manipulation of time should dominate a story by Hoeg will come as no surprise to fans of his previous novel, "Smilla's Sense of Snow," a haunting thriller with an extravagant plot, a large cast of characters-all memorable-and a rich accretion of geographic and medical lore that might have fleshed out half a dozen books.
Hoeg asserted impressive control over the suspense of that narrative-praised for its transcendence of genre-through an unorthodox use of chronology, often withholding crucial events for an agonizing length of time or pushing the reader to and fro, almost capriciously, within a space of hours or even minutes. Equally impressive was the novel's vivid heroine, Smilla Jasperson, lover of fashion and physics, an acerbic loner whose feral affinity for the elements lands her in a high-stakes scientific conspiracy.
Conspiracy drives the plot of "Borderliners" as well, but those who expect an encore of Hoeg's previous performance will be disappointed. Here, the story is tersely confined, the sense of menace claustrophobic at times.
And the main characters-three adolescents who have been neglected and abused to varying degrees-are so emotionally stunted that their tragic story, rendered in painstaking detail, is almost too gloomy to bear. Peter, the narrator, is an abandoned child who spent his first 10 years in four different institutions and confesses his inability "to have any deep feelings. Peter gravitates toward year-old Katarina, whose father hanged himself after her mother's death from a long illness.
To Peter, Katarina holds a cryptic allure; she is the sort of adolescent siren who tucks tantalizing queries about the meaning of life in boys' pockets during study hall. It is she who alerts Peter to what she suspects is the sinister plot behind the school's academic structure and discipline. Twelve-year-old August, the third borderliner and the most disturbed, has been monitored by psychiatrists since killing his parents in retribution for years of abuse.
To sleep, he sneaks down to the kitchen at night and "drinks" from a gas jet on the stove. Inevitably-and poignantly-Peter and Katarina become surrogate parents to August, bent on saving him from the machinations of the school's ostensibly magnanimous bureaucrats. The story is most moving, in fact, where it depicts the ways in which abandoned children seek to fill the vacuum of lovelessness in their lives.
And a handful of fleeting grisly details-the boy who tries to sever his own tongue; the nun who shoves small heads into the toilet after she's used it; the orphan who eats frogs for pocket change-take these children's suffering beyond the generic. For Peter the grown man, one of the ways he fills the vacuum is through fatherhood. Though he sees society as a gathering of "disconnected consciousnesses," in observing his daughter whom he refers to only as "the child"; his wife "the woman" he draws comfort from watching her growing awareness of time, how it connects her to the world and to him.
Contrary to his childhood experience of time as an instrument of fear and discipline, time as an object of compulsive analysis in his own mental "laboratory" gives Peter the illusion that he can order and control his memory, overpower his distrust of life lived in the moment, perhaps even ward off catastrophe.
Yet again, it looks as if Hoeg is out to bust a genre or two-in this case, cross-pollinating the prep-school novel with social sci-fi-but this time around, the ways in which he manipulates the reader seem a bit coy. What do we make of the fact that the narrator is a Dane, born in the mids, named Peter Hoeg?
Is this fictional warp an overt confession; a nod to Everyman, implying universal abuse; or simply a tease, a game of "Guess how much is real"? How do we react to Peter's endowing the most routine minutiae bells between classes; intercoms linked to the headmaster's office; "significant pauses" during assemblies with evil on an Orwellian scale? The headmaster does, we learn, have an odious disciplinary scheme up his sleeve-an obsession to parallel Peter's-but it does not fulfill the horrific promise of the children's fears.
So how do we justify the letdown-as a portrait of adolescent paranoia heightened by psychosis, a fable about the banality of evil, a sweeping indictment of modern education? And while the hero's digressions on time are often entertaining particularly on the history of clocks , many seem superfluous. No doubt there are readers who will savor such narrative conceits, but most, I suspect, will find them grating or trite.
To give Hoeg his due, however, it is clear from this latest work his fourth novel, but only his second in English translation that he is persisting on an uncharted course in fiction, using science to elucidate character and add a new dimension to suspense. What he will try next is anyone's guess, but it is sure to be, whether dazzling or flawed, compellingly fresh and strange.
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BOOKS OF THE TIMES; From a Sense of Snow to a Tussle With Time
A riveting departure from the Danish author whose novel Smilla's Sense of Snow was last year's surprising international bestseller. The narrator is a young man named Peter who recounts how he survived growing up in Danish orphanages and reform schools. Written in short blocks of concentrated text, the narrative skips around from memories of his childhood to meditations on the philosophy and history of time. At 14, after years of unhappily drifting through the institutional system, Peter and several other borderliners are given one last chance when they are transferred to an exclusive private school where, unknown to them, they have been sent in order to be guinea pigs in a secret government experiment where troubled students are integrated with regular, privileged students. Hoeg's cool description of everyday degradation is powerfully spare and gives the impression that the author knows all too well his painful subject.