British author, Kate Weinberg spent seven years writing her debut novel, The Truants. She studied at Oxford University, and then later at the University of East Anglia. The concrete buildings and dormitories of the Norwich campus, at which first-year student Jess Walker arrives, is clearly based on UEA. It is a far cry from the glittering spires of Oxford in Brideshead Revisited. Weinberg has said in interview that there is "something bracing about UEA's concrete reality".
Jess, is the middle child of a middle class family, but when she arrives at Norwich her conventional life will change forever. Studying English literature, she's desperate to enrol in the course on Agatha Christie, given by "campus star" Dr Lorna Clay. Weinberg has said the Clay's character is partly based on author and critic Lorna Sage, whose entire academic career was spent at UEA).
Lorna's academic reputation has been built on a bestselling book about writers. Rumours abound, however, as to why Lorna suddenly left her Cambridge University Fellowship for the less prestigious Norwich campus. The Truants, which is told six years after the events by Jess, has decided echoes of Donna Tartt's The Secret History in its focus on a small campus group whose interactions unwind to reveal deadly secrets.
Jess is initially something of a blank canvas for the depiction of the others in her group: the aristocratic, drug-taking Georgie, handsome geologist Nick and Alec, a sophisticated South African journalist, who has had to leave South Africa because of his attacks on the mining industry, and the charismatic Lorna. Jess is infatuated with Lorna, "I coveted her right down to the old-fashioned bicycle she rode around campus, whose basket always held some oddity". The love lives of the quintet overlap and unravel as they play truant from lectures and tutorials. Jess's middle-class code disappears as she is called upon to break rules and cross moral boundaries. Finding out about Alec's infidelity leads Georgia to a drug overdose and breakdown and a bitter separation from Jess.
Weinberg, in an interview, has cross-referenced Agatha Christie's disappearance and breakdown in 1926, reflected in the novel when events "set in motion by desire, end in disappearance and crushing loss". Lorna says to Jess, "Christie's books are full of triangles, secret loves, betrayals amongst friends, amongst family, often amongst the sisterhood". When death strikes the group, pregnant Jess turns to Lorna for help, which eventually sees Lorna and Jess on a remote Italian island confronting some stark truths.
The Truants is an absorbing study of "obsession, deceit and betrayal", even if, at times, the novel seems a little too clinically contrived.
- Colin Steele is a Canberra reviewer.
- The Truants, by Kate Weinberg. Bloomsbury. $29.99