School's Out, by Christophe Dufossé, trans Shaun Whiteside

Echoes of Wyndham in a tale of suicide and sinister schoolchildren
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Christophe Dufossé and his publishers practise an elaborate series of deceptions with School's Out. Is this an erotic novel? The jacket seems to promise as much: a pair of female buttocks, clad in diaphanous knickers, thrusts towards us. But the book is studiedly unerotic - human feeling is ossified here, in both the teacher-narrator and his class of highly intelligent, vaguely menacing pupils.

Is it a literary novel à la Camus? Certainly, Dufossé's countryman comes to mind while reading this haunting, allusive book, with the alienated protagonist's impressions filtered through unsettling incidents, as in The Outsider. But the real template for School's Out lies in the Home Counties rather than the rural French town in which teacher and pupils clash.

We encounter a class of quiet, icily polite children of fierce intelligence and terrifying force of personality. They sometimes speak through one member of the group, who transcribes their collective thoughts. A teacher assigned to the class commits suicide before the narrator takes it over. Yes, it's John Wyndham's sinister sprogs from The Midwich Cuckoos - and the actor George Sanders is invoked. Sanders played the teacher who takes his own life in the film of Wyndham's novel, Village of the Damned.

Neither the come-on sexuality of the jacket nor a knowledge of this award-winning debut's antecedents is much help in coming to grips with its obliqueness - although such an effort is definitely worthwhile. When Pierre Hoffmann inherits the surprisingly articulate boys and girls of class 4F from his colleague Eric, who has killed himself, his own life is a mess. Like his predecessor, he has not found a purpose to his existence. He resists sexual advances from both men and women, and seems erotically engaged only by a nurse called Nora and his own sister, now married. Pierre finds his new pupils subtly menacing, and struggles to reach them. A series of sinister incidents culminates in a coach trip with a disastrous outcome - one that leaves him a different man.

The themes of Dufossé's novel are many: the masturbatory emptiness of modern sexuality, the uselessness of art (Pierre muses that Mahler will be known to most people through the use of his music in TV ads), and the nihilism of youth. If all this sounds rather dispiriting, the author's gift for insightful phrases, and his teasing unfolding of a dark narrative, exert a comprehensive grip.