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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week