Chloe Blades reviews Kate Weinberg’s first novel, which is selling like mad and earning the London writer comparisons to Agatha Christie and Donna Tartt.
It was always going to be unfair on whichever book I read after Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women; that divisive, genre-defying masterpiece on the manipulation of female desire. Yet The Truants, also a debut, came out laughing. This is a tale of desire, betrayal and deceit. An exceptional modern-day whodunnit, it twists through the Norfolk countryside and crumbling Sicilian ghost towns stirring up excitement, pain and debauchery.
I was handed a copy of The Truants by a perceptive colleague, with a warning: “There’s an abortion in it – but it’s set in Norwich!” After my recent miscarriage on a holiday home to Norwich an abortion as a result of a one-off romp in The Old Swan wasn’t high on my list of things to read about.
Nonetheless, Norwich is my native city and I’m a sucker for nostalgia. So imagine the horror when my Norwich is described as that “flat, colourless part of the country,” and its University of East Anglia as “a concrete shit hole in the middle of flat, windswept Norfolk on what – if you looked at a map – actually was the bulging arse of the UK.”
Despite myself, I read the lot in a single sitting.
There are nods to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, I’ve heard, the defining campus novel. But, like “chick lit”, there’s something devaluing about that categorisation. The Truants is about more than the campus. It merely begins and ends on one. There are scenes of perilous adventures on islands off of Sicily, by rivers in Norfolk pub gardens, and in the grandiose family homes of our four middle-class, intellectually charged heroes and heroines.
Alec is a South African journalist who drives a hearse and head-fucks his way through confident, overachieving women. Georgie is his girlfriend, a feral aristocrat who rides horses and is addicted to pharmaceuticals. Her best friend Jess is the novel’s narrator and has a penchant for anyone who lives a perilous life, as she battles against her banal identity as the forgotten middle child. Then there’s second-year geology student, Nick, who is Jess’s boyfriend and the only one with morals.
They remind me of the 20th-century eccentrics in the Bloomsbury Set; the small group of artists and writers, including Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, renowned for their unconventional personalities. They were said to have “lived in squares but loved in triangles”.
Jess, Alec, Georgie and Nick make the Bloomsburys look conventional. A major betrayal creates “deadly triangles, using one point to stab the other”, and no amount of sunbathing on top of Alec’s hearse or jumping naked into the River Yare high on mushrooms can save them.
“It’s hard to say who I fell in love with first,” opens the novel. The first half focuses on university and the friendships forged therein. All I wanted from university was literary debate and parties where poetry was recited standing up shouting drunk on cheap Tesco wine. I spent the entirety of my first year dreaming of a friendship like the complex, multifaceted one this foursome found. They have heated moralistic debates on Agatha Christie murders and attend house parties where their maverick lecturer Lorna Clay sits “in the middle of the sofa, like a great lamp shedding light on all the upturned faces,” as she retells the mysterious tale of a jewellery heist.
Lorna is a provocative storyteller. Her tales often turn into debates. In this case, Alec tells Lorna that her suspect is “the cliché, for a start: that she is thin and nervous, the wife of a famous playwright, unseen in her own right. Therefore she is a kleptomaniac. Some fucked-up plea for attention, something to set her apart.” He continues: “But … perhaps [the playwright] controls her, enjoys humiliating her. Then gets an extra kick out of getting away with it.”
Hinting at sexual tension between the two, the debate turns into a metaphor for the question at the heart of this novel: “who is more deeply in the wrong – the killer, or the arch-manipulator who works on people already burning with repressed fury?” You’ll ask yourself this question until the end. You’ll be dragged in, mind racing on ahead, busting with second guesses.
Alec is a Dracula to the ladies. Unavoidably alluring, he’s the sort who impales you, calls the next day when the sun goes down, takes you out for a trip in his hearse and sweeps you up when you fall. Then he goes away for a few days and the thirst for him forces you into an unhealthy state of self-sabotage. Or, as Jess puts it, he lights a fire of desire so passionate inside that it makes her “want to fucking eat him”.
But she can’t eat him so she turns to Lorna Clay.
I interviewed Weinberg via email for the Unity Books newsletter and she explained that this all-knowing, charismatic woman is based on her real-life lecturer at the University of East Anglia. The late Lorna Sage had “intelligence that was far from dry,” Weinberg said, which “filtered through into her wit and spirit and sense of mischief”. The author wanted Sage and “the effect she has on people,” to reflect in the character of Lorna Clay, and boy does it. You won’t be able to figure out whether she’s a manipulative cradle snatcher or a woman who holds her own and knows exactly what she wants.
It’s the lecturer’s intellect and expertise in the field of Agatha Christie that makes her a magnet for the students, as though merely being in her presence is a privilege. Knowledge is power, after all.
The Christie parallels add to The Truants’ haunting quality. Throughout, Lorna asks “could you, if the right sort of pressure was exerted, kill someone?” And you think yes, you probably could, because from Lorna’s tone her answer is less than moral, too, and she’s in your head and you’re confused by her brilliance so you agree with whatever she says.
As Tim Heald notes in his introduction to Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, “no character in her books can board a train and travel hopefully”. Likewise, as our truants plough forth in Alec’s hearse into the winding Norfolk countryside, pop pharmaceutical pills, run alone through darkening forests, and teeter on the edge of crumbling Sicilian clifftops, you know: it’s always just a matter of time, and a matter of who.
The danger is never more palpable, however, than when Jess accepts Lorna’s invitation to a small island off the coast of Sicily. Confirmation as Lorna’s favourite makes Jess more uninhibited, as their experiences shunt her from child to adult.
Jess confides in Lorna about an accidental pregnancy. Lorna’s thoughts on children? “As far as I can tell they’re all little artists before they are shoved on a conveyor belt and taught to conform. I just don’t like what they do to their mothers. All these strong, independent women who have a baby and become exactly the same: anxious, conventional, reliant on men.” Lorna gives Jess the name of a clinic where she can go for an abortion, teaching her that “if there is one thing Dame Agatha has taught me it is that murder is a relative concept”.
What follows is a graphic telling of Jess’s abortion. I asked Weinberg what her intention was with this scene, given the current political climate surrounding abortion. She said that it “was not to moralise in any way, but to provide as vivid experience as I could for the reader, emotionally as much as physically.” And that’s exactly what it does. There’s as much room for empathy as there is for discussion around the moral quandaries posed by Jess, Lorna and, it seems, the rest of the world.
I know where I stand, given that we’re living in a time when a woman who miscarried after being raped has just been imprisoned for “failing to protect her foetus”. And when there are balding upper-class assholes in Alabama dictating moral arguments against abortion and miscarriage on the grounds of religion. I’m hoping Jess’s choice to take control over her own body raises some crusty eyebrows.
We’re never sure who it is that made the decision to have the abortion, but it doesn’t matter. The questions are the point; questions parsing the morality of friendship, desire, identity, and murder. The mystery surrounding the novel’s crime may or may not be answered, depending on your own state of mind. As Weinberg told me, “I’ve deliberately kept some ambiguity … and find that sometimes, depending on my mood, I myself change my mind on the weight of blame and responsibility involved”.
The novel poses questions, most of all, about the podium we put adulthood on as children. As Weinberg breaks our hearts and builds our resilience by proxy, we wonder if certain experiences could have been avoided if we’d done something differently. But, the novel asks, which is worse? “To follow your heart’s desire and risk pain, or to live carefully, considerately, within the rules, telling yourself it was for the best?”
The Truants, by Kate Weinberg (Bloomsbury, $32.99) is available at Unity Books.