Books: Between the idea and the reality ... falls the shadow: Hero of the class war

Carole Angier explores the blackboard jungle

Homesick by Tony Hanania, Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

This is nearly a very good novel. Like most first novels it is heavily autobiographical. Its setting is a prep school for Winchester; its narrator is Toby Shadrach, born in Lebanon and homesick for it. Tony Hanania, we read in the blurb, was born in Beirut and educated at Winchester; Shadrach is the name given to Hanania, prince of Judah, in his Babylonian exile. And Homesick is a novel of exile, with a hidden Jewish theme.

The story begins in 1972, when Hanania was eight: so are Shadrach and (even though they are English) his fellow-exiles. I have never been an eight-year-old boy, thank God, so can only judge from the literary models for this part of the book, primarily of course Lord of the Flies. But it seems to me pretty good. I believed the war games, the brocking (bating), the mad crazes; the extraordinary cruelty, the rigid hierarchy and the grotesque racial and religious prejudices of small boys. If the suggestion that school is an image of society is a cliche, it's only because it's so obviously true. Hanania's descriptions of Palgrave's rise, of Ferrers' betrayal, of Duff-Revel's reign of terror are entirely convincing.

Counterpointed to the reality of school, however, are Shady's memories of home; and here the doubts creep in. The past is meant to be stronger than the present, but it isn't. Shady's parents are vague; apart from occasional glimpses, so is the land. In his memory Shadrach seems to be almost permanently in his father's car, driven by Omer, who will become a Palestinian freedom fighter. Palestinian terrorism is Ferrers' romantic obsession. Shadrach's memories should be the opposite of this unreality, but instead they are hardly distinguishable from it. And apart from Omer, he only remembers an extremely un-Lebanese bunch of Coke - and coke-swilling American teenagers. You can't imagine why he should be homesick at all.

Once doubt had begun, it spread, like Duff-Revel's bullying. The book is so black: past and present, man and boy, England and Lebanon, all is war. But is it, really? Aren't we being, precisely, a little bullied? And on what evidence, on what experience? You can't help noticing that these are in fact privileged, protected little boys, air-lifted out at the first sign of trouble. And Hanania among them. He knows about bullying at school; but he doesn't know any more about Sabra and Chatila than Shady does, and he shouldn't have written about them.

That is the hard truth. Tony Hanania can write, but this is an immature book. It is full of schoolboy posing, in style as well as content: in mysterious chapter headings, clever-clever words ("eidolon", "pas-quinade", "obconical"), proofs of classical learning. But it's the showing-off in suffering that matters. As though Sabra and Chatila weren't enough, we also get the Holocaust. One of the Chatila victims is a Holocaust survivor, whose name is the same as Ferrers' German - and we now realise Jewish - grandmother. This is meant to bring the tragedy home. But it is so slight, and so fake, that it does the opposite.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'