Ticked off at school

BORDERLINERS by Peter Hoeg trs Barbara Haveland, Harvill £9.99
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The Independent Culture
WHEN was the last time you snuggled up with a thrusting indictment of the Danish educational system circa 1971? (Most people would say it hasn't been long enough.) That description of Peter Hoeg's new novel doesn't indicate the whole picture but, alas, it is accurate. We may become entangled along the way in a meditation on time, and encounter a love story and a portrait of the artist as a young orphan, but from Danish educational policy there is no escape.

The publishers dangle the word "semi-autobiographical" in their copy, and indeed, the distressed 14-year-old narrator Peter is in due course adopted by a couple called Hoeg, so apparently we can marvel that institutional trauma bred such indisputable talent. Yet those expecting a gripping successor to Hoeg's dazzling Arctic tour-de-force, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, may well be bemused. Miss Smilla also had a different translator, F David, who did not dispense "ones" for personal pronouns like the Windsors.

The narrator Peter's experiences at Biehl's Academy with his allies Katarina and August do bear a second reading once you see where Hoeg is going and how the puzzle fits together, but at first dip there seems to be almost too much shadow-boxing, not to mention cryptic obsessing about time. Katarina, for instance, watched her mother fight a final illness with the theory that time steals forward when you're not paying attention, so that she worked herself into a sort of super-conscious state trying to forestall death. When her father "speeded up" time in an attempt to obliterate it and hanged himself, Katarina concluded that there had to be different types of time.

This was a notion Peter had arrived at through his own curious struggle with the school's slavery to time-keeping. Their little friend August, who killed his parents and withdrew into forgetfulness, observes, "if you don't remember anything, you don't have time like other people. It's a bit like going crazy, so you get taken into protective custody. Then there's a chance."

As with the unconventional sleuth Miss Smilla and her formidable acquaintance with the qualities of snow, Peter investigates time from a plethora of angles: circular time, linear time; Newtonian, Darwinian; time la Einstein, Hawking and someone called Jakob von Uexkull who said, "We are not simply left to time ... it is also something we are constantly involved in creating. Like art." This last sounds an appealing antidote to the Newtonian drudgery with which Mr Biehl browbeats his children - until you consider that it denies an objective external world. From this it is a short step to the idea that every person is somehow shut away, isolated behind their own sensory apparatus - and alone.

At Biehl's Academy time is a collective not an individual commodity and held to offer some kind of necessary redemption. For the other significant feature of the school is its premise that underprivileged, emotionally damaged or disturbed children should not be treated or educated in any way differently from "normal" pupils. This was an experiment in political correctness tried in Denmark in the early 1970s, using methods which Hoeg brings under fierce scrutiny.

The time arguments, pursued in the book's last quarter by a grown-up Peter, now with a cherished child of his own, are challenging and involving. And there is a dramatic peak in the earlier narrative which gets the heart racing, when Katarina and Peter literally steal 10 minutes from the school by setting back Biehl's clock in an attempted escape. But largely Borderliners is more a circular than a linear read - one to double back and worry over, rather than pick up and pass the time.