The novel will be a hard read for anybody who loves a child, and yet Lupton sweetens the pill with all the tricks one expects of a thriller: twists, clues, misdirection, teases. (The injured headmaster, who has recognised his assailant, has a habit of almost regaining the power of speech, and then relapsing.) A siege may be familiar fictional territory, but Lupton's quirky touches help to defamiliarise it: the children hiding in the library co-opt the books for a blockade ("Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Brooke; all those women with their many sisters and friends and enemies and poor-choice husbands barricading the door").
The subject of school shootings is perhaps more raw in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK, coming 23 years after the Dunblane disaster, when 16 primary school pupils and one teacher were killed by a lone gunman, an incident which sparked major changes to handgun laws. Yet Lupton’s ability to handle the topic is subtle and clever. As well as a gripping thriller, this is a story of people: the good, bad and the surprising.
Rosamund Lupton deftly explores the roles played by social media and the press in such a situation, sometimes with palpable anger, and throws in a few chilling twists, but this novel’s greatest strength is its moving depiction of the anguishes of parenthood and the wild possibilities of first love.
Three Hours intersperses scenes of breath-sucking tension with stirring meditations on human nature. It’s no coincidence that Rafi smuggled a dog-eared copy of Macbeth out of Syria, or that this “play about raw evil” happens to be what the drama students are rehearsing when the theatre goes into lockdown. But the message Lupton’s novel delivers is that only love can save us. “Love is the most powerful thing there is,” the headmaster tells Hannah, “the only thing that really matters.” Love is commemorated in all its forms: romantic, brotherly, maternal, familial, but most of all the bonds of friendship and community that make it possible for one person to lay down their own life for another.