Cecily's book reviews

In general I've written reviews of every book I've read since I joined GoodReads (RIP) in May 08, along with one or two I read prior to that. More recent reviews tend to be longer (sometimes a tad too long?). I always carry a book, though I don't get as much time as I'd like to get engrossed - life is busy, but in a good way. Too many of my favourite authors died without writing enough! Apart from reading, and writing about reading, I enjoy Scrabble, good restaurants, woodland, and attending the theatre.
A Good School - Richard Yates Sadly, the weakest Yates I have read, though it was written roughly in the middle of his writing career.

This is more overtly autobiographical than his others (though all are heavily based on aspects of his life): it is the story of an awkward, not very academic 15 year old boy joining a prep school and it is topped and tailed by the boy "Grove" (i.e. Yates) explaining why he went there and what happened afterwards. In fact, the introduction was the best section: quirky, personal, poignant and with real insight ("an unspoken agreement between us that, in the dividing process of the divorce, I had been given over to my mother").

The cast of this enclosed and rather odd school community of 125 boys is large, but comprises too many stereotypes: the outsider who's a victim; the popular sporty types; boys who are rich and one or two who are poor; teachers who are loved and teachers who are not; an alcoholic, a nervous breakdown and an adulterer (it is by Yates, after all); a mad old lady; a sleazy salesman; a sexy girl or two; a communist; a runaway and so on.

Characters are introduced, then forgotten until a short burst of significant story, before returning to obscurity. It is fragmentary, often lacking in focus and largely short of narrative drive: people get older and things happen, but it's oddly incidental.

In places it almost reads like Enid Blyton's Mallory Towers with the angst of growing up ("suddenly sixth-formers... and most of them didn't feel up to it"); friendships ("the quandary of having two friends who didn't much like each other" contrasted when one is away, leading to "an easing of the pressure in his life. There was no one to admire, no one to please, no one to fear"); the comic potential of practising smoking ("how to inhale without coughing; how to will his senses to accept drugged dizziness as pleasure rather than incipient nausea. Then came the subtler lessons in aesthetics..."); dorm-sharing etc. Life there is never exactly charmed, but American joining the war narrows the boys' immediate prospects and changes things for ever.

Although the setting can be claustrophobic, exacerbated by the fact that the staff and their families live on campus and the boys never play other schools at sports, the importance of silence is an subtle thread through the book: "a dramatic silence, giving every sign of wanting to call attention to itself" and "when you're talking... the important thing is knowing when to stop. Never say anything that doesn't improve on silence." The boy who doesn't know that and "made the mistake of talking too much, and... about boring things" has to struggle for acceptance.

I wonder if the book had been longer, whether Yates would have managed to make it hang together better. It's not a bad book, but if it was the first Yates I read, I don't think I would rush to read others.

Currently reading

The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Sebastian Peake, China MiƩville, Mervyn Peake
Gormenghast
Mervyn Peake