No one is quite what they seem in Kate Weinberg’s novel The Truants. Jess is a typical middle child in a middle class family, she feels overlooked and under appreciated. She thinks university is going to kick start her life, especially if she can be taught by her academic idol Lorna Clay. One Christmas an uncle had bought the family her book The Truants and Jess has chosen her university specifically to be taught by Lorna. In Freshers Week, full of a cold, she receives an email telling her she has been removed from Professor Clay’s class. Furiously she pens an email explaining that her only reason for coming to Norfolk was to take that class, venting her disappointment. She presses send and regrets it almost immediately. However, the return email isn’t what she expected. She is informed she has been moved to Professor Clay’s other module on Agatha Christie.
Also in Fresher’s week, Jess makes her first friend in Georgie, who finds her feeling ill and helps out. They start to enjoy university as a fresher should, getting out to parties, exploring campus and meeting other students. Georgie meets a South African journalist on a fellowship and disappears for a few days. Then takes Jess to a party where Alec will meet them. Unfortunately for Jess they’ve met before. While out running through the woods she comes across a hearse that is totally out of place. As she walks towards it she sees a coffin in the back, with two intertwined bodies inside. Before she can walk away the man looks up and straight into Jess’s eyes. She notices the blue iris, perfect except for a tiny splash of hazel. Now, at the party she is staring into the same eyes, but knowing that it wasn’t Georgie in the coffin with him.
This is a very intelligent and gripping novel, full of complex characters. There’s almost a pattern to the relationships, in that every one except Jess and Nick, who she meets at a party, is triangular. Lorna is able to see these patterns, and the weak points of a person, then uses this to exploit and play with them. At times she reminded me of a cat toying with a mouse, particularly where Jess is concerned. Jess has the traits of a borderline personality in that she has few boundaries and adopts the traits of the person she’s with. This is a very dangerous combination when we mix it with the hero worship she has for Lorna. Lorna’s partner, Professor Steadman, observes that perhaps she should be setting herself apart from her students rather than courting friendships with them. Lorna replies that she likes to spend time with people who interest her and sometimes that happens to be a student. Here she’s either missing his point, or being deliberately evasive. There can never be an equal relationship with her and a student because she is in a position of power over them. She is careless with these student’s lives.
Alec is another character who is careless with other people’s feelings. All of his relationships are triangular: him, Georgie and Jess; him, Jess and Nick; him, Georgie and the woman from the hearse. He has a way of weaving magic with his stories of South Africa, but he uses them to gain advantage, either to seduce, to diminish the other person’s point of view or feelings. There’s almost a sense of criticism, to tell a horrific or heroic story in order to manipulate the other person into thinking their feelings are silly or invalid by comparison to the hardship of others. He’s an accomplished liar, because he always uses some semblance of truth. He tells Jess of his difficult younger brother Sebastian (Basti) who would do something wrong and give Alec the blame. One particular story involves a yellow dressing table and a glass horse, which Basti throws from a window then blames Alec. Jess later finds out that this story is totally fabricated; Basti doesn’t exist in the form Alec represents and the glass horse never belonged to his mother, but to someone else very important to him and to Jess. The relationships are so entangled there has to be a moment when it all implodes.
I enjoyed watching the relationship with Lorna and Jess, as it moves from student/teacher to friends, then a motherly role. Just as you think she’s become a true friend, something else happens that leaves me questioning everything. I could never pin down whether something is for Jess or her own benefit. I think she likes Jess, as much as she can like anyone, but she always puts her own needs first. Jess wonders if perhaps her lover, Professor Steadman, had known Lorna best after all:
There was something unknowable at her centre, something that shifted and changed like a trick of the light. Something that Steady understood about her that had always been vanishing. That may have wanted to be mythologised and missed. But didn’t in fact, want to be found.
Jess has been trying to have a relationship with someone who didn’t really exist, not in a fixed and knowable form. Lorna strikes me as a character who would pop up somewhere else, inventing a totally new persona. I became obsessed with the unknowability of her and whether the whole mystery is planned from start to finish. Why does Lorna move Jess to her Agatha Christie class? Why does she draw attention to the poisons used in her novels right back in Jess’s first essay? I think the author talks to us through Lorna, warning us we can look too closely and try too hard to find the truth. The magic of this novel is the mystery.
Because in solving something, in pinning it down, in reducing it to one reality, something of the magic is lost?