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

Carole Angier explores the blackboard jungle
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The Independent Culture
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.