Scudamore's first novel since Wreaking (2013) is keenly awaited, and it is terrific. We follow 10-year-old Max, as he is pulled from his beloved grandfather's farm and sent to a chilly, remote boarding school in the 1980s. Masters prone to terrifying rages wield power over the boys, but Max also makes friends who will last into adulthood when, it transpires, there was something even more horrific than the beatings going on at school. Both a moving and deeply-felt study of male friendship, and a disturbing exploration of the brutality of life at boarding school, this is a must-read.
That tension is punctured, here and there, by bathetic missteps in the prose: ‘The legend of the biscuit game, apocryphal or not, is at least no longer incomprehensible’, ‘the sight of a heap of cooling crustaceans had never been so desolate’, and so on. But that’s a small stylistic gripe about a novel that tackles, with admirable ambivalence, ‘a certain brand of Englishness’ that has covered its tracks for so long.
The darkness is punctuated by sardonic jokes, especially once the story moves to reunions in the posh, druggy enclaves of the Cotswolds and Tuscany. Apart from the perpetually drifting Max, former pupils gain professional success, but trauma of this kind, as in a Patek Philippe advert, is never owned but passed down the generations. “Tell me this: what’s the difference between justice and retribution?” Simon asks. Max answers: “Retribution is the form justice takes… There is no justice without retribution.”
English Monsters shares interests with Scudamore’s previous novel Wreaking — institutions, mental health — and one of its weak links too: a narrative sometimes too fragmented to build the drive that the epic scale demands. It flicks back and forward and makes a case for viewing life as a long game, even if the phrasing (‘The past was where it was at’) isn’t quite Faulknerian.
English Monsters is a searing indictment of a culture that downplays and covers up horrors: from the master who refers to abuse as “unpleasantness”, to the former pupils who refuse to believe that anything untoward happened, to the mother who claims her son might have enjoyed being abused because he was gay. The novel is also a plea for a world in which children can grow untouched by a system that seeks to corrupt them. Harrowing, deeply moving and richly insightful, this is Scudamore’s best novel yet.
...Scudamore’s subject – the messed-up-ness of the English ruling classes – is as good as timeless. And after an underpowered opening, you begin to see what Mantel was getting at. English Monsters is a book that stays with you, but only if you stay with it... The suspense builds in the beautifully paced closing section, as the embers of past trauma glow and crackle into life. English Monsters is one of the most well-observed novels I’ve read on the way that childhood abuse lingers into adulthood. “There is no solving it,” as Simon protests when Max attempts to find justice on his friend’s behalf. “It isn’t going away.”
When the story moves on, what propels it is not so much Max’s own experiences as the question of what happened to others and whether he should expose it. Here, though, the book starts to fall apart. Its account of the peregrinations, guarded friendships, postponed bonding and painful confessions of a group of boarding-school survivors comes across as repetitive and rambling. The narrator seems unduly fascinated by the coke-fuelled raves and brilliant inventions of this gilded but damaged band of brothers. Intelligent, disturbing questions — about loyalty, complicity and justice — are lost in a welter of detail.