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Saturday, 10 March 2018

Book review: The Other New Girl, LB Gschwandtner (2017)

When Susannah Greenwood (she is married now and doesn't use that surname any more but I couldn't find her married name in the book) goes to San Francisco to be at the birth of her grandchild she unexpectedly bumps into someone from her distant past. Daria McQueen is now a shadow of her former self. Where as a teenager at the Foxhall School in rural Pennsylvania she had been the leader of the cool set, now she looks worn out and sad. Susannah draws out some details about Daria’s unfortunate marriage to a man who abused her, but there are other, unspoken things that date from their time together at the boarding school lying between them in spaces they seem reluctant to occupy.

Gschwandtner’s portrait of the school is workman-like and good enough as far as it goes, and the narrative dutifully draws you along by promising to reveal things that happened that were characterised by deep tragedy – there is mention of a death – but once the author starts dissecting the different religions and the way the Quakers – who run the school – deal with students from different religious backgrounds, you feel as though she lacks a certain critical distance. The esoteric differences between Quaker theology and practices and Catholic ones are a little twee, you think. Or at least I did. When Gschwandtner betrayed what is probably an abiding attachment to religion in this way, I put the book down. I didn’t need to read any further. I could hardly imagine that such quibbling notions as the way that the Quaker heads of the school dealt with children from different religious backgrounds could have anything to do with me or my world, where organised religion of any colour or stripe has always been an alien and monolithic force to be resisted at all costs.

Gschwandtner’s hang-up about religion, and especially Quakerism, felt to me to be part of a larger problem to do with vision. The book also lacks a certain poetry in its conception of the individual and their place in the world. The rules and mores of the school are there to be resisted by the girls who form the nucleus among whom the drama plays out, but the mechanistic way turns in the story unfold is merely functional rather than absorbing. They get you were the author wants you to be but there is little underlying richness that would justify the effort required for arrival.

I liked the way the girls take over Susannah’s dorm room one night in order to throw flower crowns out the window onto the tree that a boy from a nearby town had climbed up into for a late-night tryst, provoking the school authorities to expel the girl who had occupied it before her. But the dower Miss Bleaker is a caricature of a headmistress with her severe black dresses and the school rule book sitting alone on the bookshelf in her office. Jane Austen made this kind of secondary character with just as much imagination two hundred years ago.

Oh yes, and the girls go out into the woods one afternoon on a weekend to smoke cigarettes together, one by one, so as not to arouse any suspicions for anyone who might be watching. What a lark! Such drama is pedestrian and the risks minimal and there is little in the way of deeper development of ideas that might have been realised through a more detailed use of focalisation. Susannah is a likely vehicle for sustained reflections on the nature of authority and of the individual's place in the world, but the author does not avail herself of such tactics.

You might be expelled from Foxhall but that hardly counts as a great tragedy in the larger scheme of things. Unless you had drunk the Kool-Aid, as Gschwandtner seems to have done. The fussy agonising over whether the Quakers were really being tolerant about children from different religious backgrounds is all of a kind with such esoteric concerns.

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