It is precisely two years since A Sweet Obscurity - Patrick Gale's 12th work of fiction. Friendly Fire , populated by a set of familiarly winning adolescents, is somewhat blunter than its predecessor. In the first 300 pages, there isn't a single fatality. But it is no less impressive.
Gale reverts to a single chronology and setting: a church school. There is little room for its adult protagonists, though each emerges as trustworthy or damaged. Instead, Friendly Fire describes with thorough brilliance the destabilising onset of male puberty. Typically, Gale opts for an unpredictable point-of-view: the observations of one of the school's few girl pupils, Sophie.
Raised in a children's home, she has rejected attempts to foster her and arrives at school apparently ill-equipped to deal with the social assumptions of an intake which - herself apart - ranges from the middle-class upwards.
But Sophie understands institutions, which affords her a sure-footed immunity among the chaotic, emotional manipulations that have long-characterised English school life. She falls in with two superficially assured gay youths: the exotic, Jewish Lucas, and a blond cricketer, Charlie.
Gale's chief trick is in relating how the boys' emotional and sexual initiations are cannily interpreted by someone beyond them. Still, as Friendly Fire focuses on the vexed question of teacher-pupil relationships, she is left as clueless as the boys whose unchecked passion leads them into danger.
The book is characterised by a coherent narrative arc. Its author's abiding concern - the perverse vicissitudes of the heart - is not stinted. But Sophie is stripped not only of gender certainties and family ties, but also of the comforting immediacy of bourgeois conformity, which her school embodies and demands surrender to. Her discomfort throws into relief - and into question - the values which her surroundings reflect and require.
Friendly Fire is another triumph for Gale. It is part of an oeuvre which looks ever more formidable, particularly for a novelist still in mid-career.
Richard Canning is writing a life of Ronald Firbank
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