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IoS book review: The Starboard Sea, By Amber Dermont

Life: not plain sailing, even if you're rich

Asked to describe the most important event of his life, Jason Prosper recalls his best friend's suicide. The truthful answer, however, might involve his birth into a life of prep schools and sailing clubs among America's east-coast elite.

The banality of privilege, so random yet so instrumental, is one theme of Amber Dermont's engrossing first novel, which begins in 1987, when 18-year-old Prosper washes up at Bellingham, a third-rate private school for well-off delinquents.

Confused about his sexuality, appalled and enthralled by his peers, he's alternately self-absorbed and self-aware. He makes a memorable observation when, watching an odious classmate schmooz with the President of Harvard University, he considers less affluent applicants: "None of those overachievers understood that their real competition for admission was not a genius with a 4.0 but a kid whose most glorious achievement was his recent second-place finish in an Egg McMuffin eating contest."

Dermont is a confident stylist, musical and alliterative. Prosper's brother, a forerunner for avaricious bankers, discusses "turning their Renoir into an ATM", which is disconcerting because it sounds like something a wealthy philistine might conceivably say. A more earnest moment arrives when his mother unveils a painting she's produced at her evening class: this is more worthwhile than inheriting a Sargent.

"Shame is the scourge of cowards," says the headmaster, and when his students turn nasty, the narrative accelerates. Bellingham's "reckless boys" and "second chances" echo F Scott Fitzgerald's "careless people" and "second acts", but the abundance of allusions and curious names implies connections where there might be none. The head is Windsor and there's a Thatcher too, but if Dermont's point is that her country is as rotten with class rigidity as Britain, a greengrocer's daughter who became PM is an incongruous reference.

Prosper confronts prejudice and corruption, befriending Bellingham's lone black student and investigating the fate of an enigmatic girl. At the same time, the details of his friend's suicide emerge and the reader absorbs a double tragedy. The idea that "sailing is the art of asking questions" reflects the novel's unresolved conundrums: fathers, present and absent, are a source of angst, so are we better off with or without them? And do Dermont's upper-class grotesques live with too little or too much shame?

The answers may lie in the ocean, because the starboard sea of the title is "the right sea, the true sea … the best path in life". Dermont's strongest writing describes sailing but when Prosper competes in a championship, she sensibly resists a dramatic sporting climax. Instead, the skewed sense of loyalty that his unhappy parents instil in him suggests that, although Prosper is committed to breaking the cycle of inherited misery, he will never entirely escape the small world of the entitled. Amber Dermont has a bigger future.