Suppose you agree with Samuel Johnson: “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” You agree so thoroughly, in fact, that you don’t particularly want to read about people going about in ships. Their time-honored customs, their arcane nautical lingo, their rigid hierarchies, their routine cruelties: All this repels rather than fascinates.
Then an editor (with whom you haven’t worked before) asks if you’d like to review a sea-novel, the second in a series, by a writer you don’t know. You don’t want to start off seeming a prima donna, so you say yes. Worst-case scenario: If you decide you couldn’t give a fair-minded review, you can send the books back, with apologies, and ask to be kept in mind for something else (maybe a novel about an aging man in a house so full of books, there’s hardly a place to set a cup down). But then something unexpected happens. Without in any way losing your deep-seated aversion to the genre they represent, you find that these two books are exceedingly good, and the mind that animates them is fascinating.
That, dear reader, is what happened when I read H. S. Cross’s Wilberforce (published in 2015) and Grievous (out this spring), not sea stories but centered rather in a different sort of closed community: an English boarding school, St. Stephen’s, in Yorkshire. (Though the novels have the same setting — the first one in 1926, the second in 1931 — the principal characters in the two books are not the same.) If you are a lifelong reader of fiction who has written about the stuff off and on for decades, nothing is more satisfying than the opportunity to recommend a not-yet-well-known writer who really is exceptionally good. So what’s the problem?
The first problem is gush. “________ drops on us like a thunderclap; the big, booming, explosive sound of twenty-first-century literature finally announcing itself.” I’ve taken that endorsement from the back of the dust jacket of a widely praised first novel from 2018. You could supply plenty of other examples. Gush is nothing new, of course, but it is more pervasive now than ever. Any reviewer who wants to single out a genuinely brilliant book faces the problem of the boy who cried “Wolf!” A certain cunning is required.
But there’s another problem, even more difficult to get around. Grab a few issues of the New York Times Book Review and skim the reviews of fiction. Most of them, you’ll find, are heavy on plot summary. They don’t tell you everything that happens in the book at hand, but — even though they tend to be rather short — they tell you more than you want to know if you are going to read the book yourself. The first reading of a novel — whatever kind of book it is, “avant-garde” or not, 200 pages or 900, Muriel Spark or War and Peace — should unfold with an unrepeatable freshness and immediacy. (Rereading, and rereading again, has its own distinctive pleasures!)
So too many reviews tell you more than you want to know about the unfolding of this or that novel before you’ve read it — is this supposed to be the literary equivalent of a “product warning” before you make a commitment? — while at the same time failing to convey, except in passing and often as if by accident, what’s most important: the flavor of the novel at hand, the taste of its sentences, the nature of its controlling intelligence.
In the case of Grievous, what’s most salient, from the first page to the last, is the author’s immense confidence, serene rather than overbearing: confidence in herself and the strength of her material but also confidence in her readers. While just below the surface of many novels we sense authorial anxiety — the fear, for instance, that readers’ attention will flag, or a different sort of fear evident in the studious suppression of uncertainty, complexity, anything that might, heaven forbid, daunt the reader — Grievous proceeds on the assumption that its readers will enjoy figuring things out as they go, somewhat in the spirit of a game or a puzzle. Very few readers, I think (and certainly not this one), will figure everything out on a first reading, but Cross trusts that we will not be unduly dismayed:
These boys had a language more exotic than Chinese, everything shortened and removed from its source. He tutored her in Stephenese, terms absurd, terms profane. Dead Men’s Leg, Maggots in Milk, Boiled Baby, Grass; soccer, saccer, footer, changer; the Eagle, the Flea, Fardles, Ennui; rag, chaff, pong, swiz; top-hole, dribble-tank, lose your rat, bumf.
She begged him to stop, but he didn’t. It was like being tickled, when you pleaded for mercy but didn’t mean it, really.
Cross’s own delight in language, not only in Stephenese but in many different Englishes, her savoring of the sound of words, her ear for dialogue, the uncanny perfection of many of her sentences: All this reminded me of James Joyce, which I probably shouldn’t say, since (alas) that signifies “unreadable” to many people, and Cross is not that.
Most unlike Joyce is Cross’s robust Christianity, which animates her fiction without a trace of lapel-grabbing or huffing and puffing. Her faith must be the source of the serene confidence I mentioned earlier, which comes through not only on the page but in interviews and such. She has said that she first “began to imagine the school that ultimately became St. Stephen’s Academy” when she was 17, and that “for many years I experimented with the seeds of these people and this world.”
When I was a boy in Southern California in the 1950s, my mother — who had been an “MK,” a missionary kid, in China until the age of eleven — told my younger brother and me that most of the missionary parents (unlike our grandparents, our mother’s parents) had sent their children to mission boarding schools, far away from where the parents were based. Even decades after the fact, it was clear that she was appalled by this. My brother and I heartily agreed. Perhaps that has something to do with my lifetime loathing for boarding schools.
When I was in my early twenties, I embarked on Anthony Powell’s cycle of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time, intending to read all twelve volumes, but I bogged down in the first one with Nicholas Jenkins in boarding school. Only years later, thanks to a close friend who loved Powell’s work, did I try again, with success, getting to the third book in the sequence as rapidly as possible.
If you had told me, earlier this year, that I would be immersed in not one but two long novels set in an English boarding school, I would have scoffed. If you had told me that I would be looking forward to the author’s next book (which, alas, I’ll probably have to wait several years for), I would have been incredulous. Such is the power of a writer like H. S. Cross.
This article appears as “A World Unto Itself” in the July 29, 2019, print edition of National Review.