The late American novelist John Knowles is not so well known on this side of the Atlantic. Largely that is because his greatest work, A Separate Peace, a novel of undisputed classic status in America and a staple of high school reading lists, has, remarkably, never been published in Britain.
Having sold seven million copies since its original release in 1959, and carrying such a weight of reputation, it is a most unusual "newcomer" to the late summer publishing scene. A coming-of-age tale set in a New England boarding school, it bears immediate comparison to its better known contemporary The Catcher in the Rye, but is an altogether gentler, more quietly brilliant book.
The school, Devon, acquires the status of a kind of American Eden in Knowles' story. Set shortly after America's entry to the Second World War, the boys of the Upper Middle class are still "calmly, numbly reading Virgil", while men little older than them are already in khaki.
The war rages off-stage, dimly viewed through newspaper stories, but Devon maintains a luminous innocence – embodied in the novel's most vivid character, Phineas, or Finny, an open-hearted, unaffected, athletic 16-year-old, who is the object of the admiration and buried envy of our narrator, Gene.
The plot turns on one random act of violence, as Gene knocks Finny out of a tree, crippling him. Neither of the boys ever admits to themselves that the blow was deliberate and it is, as Gene himself notes, a small crime in a world at war, in which "ships were being torpedoed dropping thousands of men in the icy ocean, whole city blocks were exploding into flame in an instant."
But the act disturbs the peace of Devon, and the seemingly timeless rhythms of the school year. The world beyond the stately buildings and the playing fields begins to encroach, and the war in far-off Europe and Asia beckons America's innocents. Even as Finny attempts to persuade the boys that the war is a fiction, talk turns to enlisting. For Knowles, the school is America itself in miniature – moving from the innocence of isolation to the cruel experience of a global war.
For the boys, this is summed up in a passage where Gene reflects that he once "welcomed each new day as if it were a new life". "Now, in this winter of snow and crutches with Phineas, I began to know that each morning reasserted the problems of the night before, the sleep suspended all but changed nothing, that you couldn't make yourself over between dawn and dusk."
For Knowles, growing up, and experience, means facing up to the idea of threat in the world, and he skilfully depicts the different boys' reactions to it. Finny alone remains wholly true to himself and refuses to recognise that he has an enemy – a kind of innocence, which, in the cruelty of the world beyond a sheltered adolescence in a time of peace, is doomed.
Knowles, who died in 2001, won awards and praise from literary greats when he wrote A Separate Peace. In America, one imagines he is rather taken for granted by bored students made to read his work for exams, but for British readers unfamiliar with him, reading this novel will feel like unearthing a forgotten gem.
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