Hamish Hamilton £18.99 (572pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Skippy Dies, By Paul Murray

Paul Murray's novel opens with the title scene. Skippy, a junior boarder at Seabrook College for Boys in Dublin, is having a doughnut-eating contest with his friend Ruprecht when he collapses to the floor and expires, in full view of the other kids at Ed's Doughnut House. The book then rewinds and for two of its three volumes (Skippy Dies comes as a trio of paperbacks) takes us through the preceding term. We see life not just for the boys, but for the teachers, an uneasy mix of secular types and elderly priests vaguely aware that their status at the school and in the world is slowly slipping away.

In fact, Skippy, a rather passive, vacant boy, is only one of a handful of central characters, but he and his death are the nexus through which all the novel's other plot strands twine. These include the struggle for control of the school by the Acting Principal, Greg "The Automator" Costigan, the burgeoning drug business of delinquent pupil Carl, who sells diet pills to the girls of neighbouring St Brigid's, and the scientific experiments of Skippy's room-mate Ruprecht, who is intent on proving the existence of parallel universes.

For much of its length, Skippy Dies is a rollicking school comedy, ticking boxes with a gleeful, authoritative flourish. Foul-mouthed boys seek ingenious ways to stave off boredom and make contact with girls, while eccentric teachers despair of their lives. Chief among these is congenital failure Howard Fallon, who finds his insipid existence upset by the arrival of a gorgeous blonde supply teacher, Aurelie McIntyre.

Howard's clumsy negotiations with her are some of the funniest parts of the book – and this is a novel that had me barking out happy laughter almost as a form of regular punctuation. "'You know, I'm not going to sleep with you,'" Aurelie says at their first meeting, "looking him over with the tip of her tongue tucked into the corner of her mouth, as if she is deciding what to have for dinner." Then, at their second, when Howard ineptly tries to refer to this, "'Now I'm definitely not going to sleep with you.'"

The first volume ends with an eye-opening Halloween Hop that involves many of these themes (drugs, sex) but expels Aurelie from the book. With her, a spark seems to go from it, as Murray knuckles down and starts working his way towards poor Skippy's demise.

There's the only real problem. The book strays near some dark territory (self-harm, domestic violence, bereavement, sexual abuse), but maintains its light, utterly readable, skippy tread throughout. In this it is reminiscent of Zadie Smith's White Teeth – intricate of structure, charming of surface, adept at winding science and history into its design, it can't in the end decide how serious or funny it wants to be.

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