Friday, 30 September 2016

Book-dowsing: The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

Unlike my other favourite Spark books (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means, Loitering with Intent) it is the setting rather than the characters of The Finishing School that have lingered for me. This book-dowsing was done from my own shelves and though it has been a good five years since I first read The Finishing School, College Sunrise was as I'd remembered it whereas the plot and the people were vague shadows. I'd forgotten, for example, that there was an attempted murder.

Written in the third person, the main players are the precocious student Chris, and Rowland the teacher and joint manager of the College. Rowland is allegedly writing a novel - and has been trying to write one for a while. Flame-haired Chris is writing his first novel aged 17 and is doing very well with publishers and agents keen to use his age as a selling point for the book. Rowland becomes obsessed with Chris, doing what he can to undermine the progress of the novel while denying to himself just how fixated he is getting with his pupil. Rowland's wife Nina can see what affect Chris is having on her husband but as Rowland resists any attempt to wrest Chris from his life her thoughts turn to life beyond her marriage. Chris begins to suspect the power he has over Rowland when a fellow pupil informs him that the man searched his room for his manuscript while he was away from the school. Ultimately, he finds he needs Rowland about so he can actually finish his book. As Rowland's obsessions shows slight signs of waiving, Chris takes his own steps along that route.

College Sunrise is a school that moves from country to country, maintaining itself with the fees paid by the parents of the small, select band of pupils. A minimal number of staff work at the College and the hotel next door provides its pool for the boarders to use. As I said at the start, the setting of this novel has left a larger impression on me than the events, I think because of the idea of a peripatetic school with minimal classroom sizes and no real exams exerted a great fascination over my inner teenager. She would have loved to experience that kind of thing! This isn't to say that the characters are dull and the plot of little interest. Love of College Sunrise alone would not have seen me through to the end of a book when so many others are waiting in the eaves to be read.

Muriel Spark

The book is standard Spark. She has a unique style which I imagine you either like or you don't. Her narrative takes in the past and the future in effortless asides though unlike some of her other books this one does not flit from present to past to future quite so much. Her characters are all pleasantly grey - by that I mean that they are neither one extreme nor the other, neither evil nor good but a collaboration of these two. This means that her writing is pleasantly free of one-dimensional archetypes and her characters are able to be themselves. 

At a little over 150 pages, it's a short book and one you could take on a train journey to while away the time. I would recommend this book as I enjoyed it but I don't think it's one of Spark's best. It wouldn't be the first book of hers I would set before you if you were new to this author - check out the three novels listed at the top of this page for those I would direct you to first.

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