Serious Things by Gregory Norminton
10/02/08, The Sunday Telegraph
For his impeccably written fourth novel, Serious Things, Gregory Norminton has left behind the world of historical fiction of his first three books to take up the here and now: the last years of Thatcher in power, the New Labour decade, 9/11, all churn away in the background as the poisonous dynamics between the residents of Kingsley Hall, a boys’ boarding school in the South Downs, open up to implicate, silently and subtly, the various wrong turnings contemporary history has taken. It is rare enough to find a successful conflation of the personal and the political but to articulate immense issues such as environmental depredation (Norminton is an eco-activist), the culture of narrow self-interest, the inherent mendacity of power, within a story that stays firmly anchored to its plot and characters without ever falling into tub-thumping is astonishing.
Serious Things centres on the disturbing friendship between two thirteen-year-olds, Bruno Jackson, sent over from Malaysia to school in England, and Anthony Blunden, glamorous, privileged, and possibly dangerously damaged. In the putrid hothouse that is the English boarding school, with its casual yet reified culture of sadism, darker currents run under the surface of the friendship. When they are on the threshold of Lower Sixth, a young, free-thinking English teacher, Mr Bridge, takes the boys, both outsiders in their very different ways, under his wing. It unleashes a chain of events with devastating consequences. Years later, they still cast their shadow on the life of Bruno – obese, afflicted with eating disorder, leading a loveless, grey, anonymous life in London – when a chance encounter with Anthony rakes up everything.
Structured like a thriller (it is a thriller in many ways), its very construction in the braiding of ‘then’ and ‘now’ symbolic of the inseparability of past and present, Serious Things is about nothing short of the slow death of the soul and its eventual redemption. Although sodden with a very peculiarly English melancholy – and this is one of its tonal triumphs – it manages to refract Lord of the Flies at some moments, The Secret History at others, even cast a sideward glance at Dead Poets Society. Norminton’s measured, elegant prose, luminous with a kind of precise poetry, makes beauty and menace sing in perfect harmony. The book is worth reading for his writing on the English countryside alone while his scaling of the treacherous cliffs of fall of the human heart will take your breath away.