You Deserve Nothing, By Alexander Maksik

To Sir, with love and obsession

Reviewed,Alexandra Heminsley
Sunday 18 September 2011 00:01

The "cool teacher who opens minds" narrative is now looking a little tattier round the seams than any garment such a teacher would wear. But Alexander Maksik has given it a mesmerising reboot here. Set at an international school in Paris in 2002, just as the US is preparing for its invasion of Iraq, You Deserve Nothing charts six months under the tutelage of the charismatic Will Silver, an archetype of the English teacher who "really gets" his students.

This oldest of stories is told – apparently some time after the events – from three perspectives: that of Will himself, armed with a hipster reading list and a decent haircut; that of Gilad, a student from an unhappy home who clearly idolises Will; and that of Marie, the beautiful but fragile student with whom Will begins an affair.

At first, it all seems terribly French: Maksik's Paris is glamorous, invigorating and full of ideas, Silver's classes are undeniably intoxicating, and Camus references are sprinkled throughout the text like truffles. All this, combined with Marie's initial, knowing advances and Silver's noble rejection of them, makes for a heady read. But the three parallel narratives are so delicately, hypnotically paced that it is not long before cracks start to appear. And what cracks they are.

When Will and Gilad both witness a random murder on the Metro, it affects them each deeply but differently. What unfolds is a bond that calls to mind Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, and is no less compelling. Meanwhile, Marie's telling of her developing relationship with Will starts to show flashes of instability that unsettlingly betray just how vulnerable she is. Slowly, the inevitable creeps ever closer and it proves impossible to look away.

Advance proof copies of You Deserve Nothing were sent to reviewers with a letter from The Lovely Bones author Alice Sebold, who discovered Maksik while in her guise as editor at Tonga Books. She is generous in her praise, and rightly so: what Maksik has created with You Deserve Nothing is a story that is as fresh as it is old; a story of complicated emotions, simply told. It deftly conjures the very best of dazzling teen inspiration as well as the very worst of crippling teen alienation, while remaining a very adult novel. It reminds the reader how powerful ideas and literature can be – not just by creating a memorably complex character in Will, but with some stunning prose of its own as well.

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