First off – dear Viking, you probably ought to spell check your author’s name for the title page. Simion Lelic =/= Simon Lelic. OOPS.
Second off – this is my third recommendation from The Biblioracle over at The Morning News. If you’re reading this blog and you haven’t used John Warner’s monthly-ish service… well, you need to get your act together. I don’t need to tell you about Gravity’s Rainbow or Geek Love – you can read about them on the blog, in fact – but I can tell you that Warner is 3-for-3.
A Thousand Cuts is an interesting twist on the crime novel. It also manages the double-feat of performing one of the most searing analyses of modern adolescents that I’ve ever read. The only problem I had, really, was that it maintained a slightly artificial tone throughout. But I’ll get to that.
The novel flips between the present-tense action and interviews conducted by the main character, Inspector Lucia May. The catalyst of the plot comes before the pages even begin: a teacher has shot four people (students and adults) as well as himself during an assembly at a British secondary school. The Inspector is looking into the case and realizes that something is not quite square with the case as it has been presented – and, as anyone who has gone to school ever can tell you, there’s a lot more going on behind the apparently hunky-dory facade.
Kids are vicious. They always have been. I remember being teased – and teasing – in elementary, middle, and high school. It’s the nature of the beast – you get picked on by those ‘above’ you and you pick on those ‘below’ you. Doesn’t matter that two of my remaining high school friends are people I saw as ‘below’ me and doesn’t matter that in college I became someone who would’ve picked on my grade school self. That’s the way it is, when you’re there. I’ve always heard that British public schools are far worse than American ones – but I’ve never had much interaction with them. I mean, If…. is a British boarding school and certainly there are other instances scattered throughout my literary/cinematic history – but I can’t call them readily to mind. This was my first brush with a (from what I can tell) relatively true-to-life account, post-time-in-England, of a British public school and it is horrifying – but also very similar to things I remember from my public school.
The plot is not really all that surprising and is in many ways predictable from about page 8. But you keep reading because you know, deep down inside, that this is so correct. So spot-on about how absolutely fucked the system is. Teachers who try to be one of the kids and as a result turn into juvenile assholes; the head of the school who is trying desperately to present to the world an “everything is GREAT” front in order to get funding while the school goes to shit behind the scenes; students who apparently run the school and have even the disciplinarians wrapped around their finger; teasings that turn violent and violence that turns horrible. Sure, my school wasn’t as bad as this school – but the possibility existed. It was there. I remember friends of mine giving absolutely no respect to an AP English teacher my junior year of high school – and he couldn’t get any respect from those above him, either. Why didn’t he turn into Szajkowski? I don’t know – maybe because he had a wife and kids and a passion and some students (like me) actually enjoyed what he taught us.
The sheer ambivalence of everyone (well, excepting Lucia – and I suppose a few others) towards bullying is unbelievable. Even when it happens on an adult – and much scarier – level at the police department, nothing gets done. Lucia ends up with the raw end of the deal because her boss is just like the headmaster was to Szajkowski – they see this person as an intruder, as someone shaking up the status quo, when in reality the status quo was so mind-bogglingly screwed up…
My only problem with the book came from its tone. There was a clinical, report-esque tone throughout the whole book. I felt like I was reading a newspaper article – albeit an interesting one – and not a novel. Even the shifts between voices (from third person narration to the various individuals recounting in first person their stories to Lucia), while handled superbly and in a way that made each individual different from the others, were just dry. Not flat, but dry. Perhaps this comes from the author being a reporter and this being his first novel. He certainly experiments with the crime novel format and he addresses a topic that (as you can probably tell) made me quite reflective and quite sad – I just wish he’d done it in a slightly more engaging way.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I would’ve originally said 3/3.5- something just above average – but the fact that I’ve been thinking about bullying and about how our society (as a world society, not just an American one) works and this is all because of this book… well, that bumps it up. Lelic’s novel is a wakeup call – because, let’s face it: it could happen tomorrow. Anywhere, across the world – but for the same reasons, no matter what locale. Some people are strange but that doesn’t mean you can ostracise them – because look what happens when you do.
(www.twitter.com/thebiblioracle – the best way to keep up to date on what’s happening with The Biblioracle. I wouldn’t've picked this book up otherwise and, once again, John Warner knocked it out of the park. DO YOURSELF A FAVOR and, next month, submit your last-five-read. You won’t be disappointed.)