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Review: Grievous, by H. S. Cross
FSG, 2019. 524 pp. $30

John Grieves, a.k.a. Grievous, has never felt so tested, pained, or enraged, despite a life that has given him much heartache. The cause of his current frustration and anguish is a fourteen-year-old student, Gray Riding, whom everyone says will win a scholarship to Oxford one day — unless he’s expelled from Saint Stephen’s, the public (private) school in Yorkshire where John is his housemaster.

Eton College boys wearing hats corresponding to the various rowing teams competing on the Thames, June 1932, photographer unknown (courtesy Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons; Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13350 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Naturally, he’s the most sensitive housemaster at the school; the others would have caned Riding black and blue until he shaped up or shipped out. But in the year 1931, John understands that though the momentous issues of the day never penetrate Saint Stephen’s gated walls, his struggle with Gray, and how he manages his own strengths and weaknesses in that effort, matter just as much in their own small way. That knowledge, however, generally offers little consolation.

Gray follows an adolescent code of honor typical of Saint Stephen’s, and of the public-school culture: never show feeling, never flinch, never make yourself vulnerable, never betray a friend. Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s rebellious schoolboy character, Stalky, the friend he chooses is one determined to break every rule, even those the school hasn’t thought of yet. Mind you, that’s even before John’s thirteen-year-old goddaughter, Cordelia, shows up and smites the boy in a heart that others suppose has been encased in lead.

The genius of this novel resides in the urgency with which Cross imbues John’s attempt to redeem young Riding, and why the boy resists. Didn’t such novels go out with saying goodbye to Mr. Chips? Well, no, as Cross amply proves here. This British public school resembles an infernal machine that stamps its inmates with snobbery, sadism, treachery, and cold-hearted contempt, while hunting down the homoerotic impulses it otherwise does so much to encourage. Any sensitive soul like Gray would howl in rage and pain, but only to himself. His outlet is a Tolkienesque story he writes during class lectures, featuring characters named Valarious and the Elf Rider. Already chained by Kipling’s Stalky, he wonders, during a very risky escapade with his reckless friend, whether stories can help him at all:

The ground was damp, his seat soaked, his teeth coated in licorice. If they could make it back intact in every sense, Gray silently vowed to devote himself to ordinary life and stop confusing it with stories. In stories, you didn’t risk your life and your arse waiting in a field to perform your heroics.… In stories, a coherent hand guided the plot; there was no tumble of make-believe just when you needed to think clearly. Friends in stories never lied to one another.

This passage, which occurs around page 60, marks the point at which, for me, the narrative overcomes obstacles that may deter even a dedicated reader. Cross explains absolutely nothing of Saint Stephen’s myriad intricacies, letting you infer them as you go along, including the schoolboy slang, which reminds me of Anthony Burgess novels in which he invents languages. How maddening. Nevertheless, you have the sense that if you can only hang on, you’ll be rewarded; and so you will. That said, the author need not have refused to clarify more of her transitions, so that I don’t have to ask myself which character’s voice I’m tuning into right now. I could also have done without the long dashes that introduce dialogue instead of quotation marks, an affectation I dislike.

Names matter in this very literary novel. John Grieves is an apt handle for a man who suffered as a conscientious objector in the Great War and who’s never gotten over a disappointment in love. Dr. Sebastian, the headmaster, acts as though he’s been pierced by many arrows, though John, a lifelong friend, actually takes more of them. Most importantly, I think, Gray’s first name is Thomas, and because the two names and their initials appear several times, I can’t help think of Thomas Gray, the eighteenth-century poet whose masterpiece, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” hung in the back of my mind while I was reading. You can apply the poem’s most famous line, “the paths of glory lead but to the grave” to John’s story, and, even more significantly, Gray’s father. And John’s initial motive to help Gray, one that many teachers must feel, appears in this subsequent couplet: “Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,/And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

I wish Cross had given Grievous a more fully resolved ending. But, as a sequel to Wilberforce (whose title derives not from the famous British abolitionist but an older student who tries to liberate Gray from his self-imposed emotional shackles), I expect another volume in the series to bring the story further.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.