The campus novel has traditionally centered upon the more comic aspects of university life. From the first of its kind, Mary McCarthy’s “The Groves of Academe” (1952), to its most recent incarnation, Julie Schumacher’s “The Shakespeare Requirement” (2018), the novel has delighted in lampooning hapless students and bumptious professors, and skewering all manner of collegiate rites, regulations and rivalries.
Every now and again, however, a darker kind of campus novel will appear in which satire is swapped for drama, and the rarefied air of academia is polluted by corrupted characters and their foul deeds. Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut, “The Secret History,” was one such book; “The Club” by Takis Würger is another.
Würger’s debut was a bestseller in his native Germany. Its universal themes, brilliantly depicted world and taut storytelling constitute a recipe for further success.
The protagonist is Hans Stichler, a young German who is jolted from his idyllic childhood and made to grow up fast after two family tragedies. His English aunt Alex becomes his legal guardian, but instead of taking him under her wing, she packs him off to boarding school, where he studies hard and learns to box.
One day, Alex contacts her nephew with an offer and a request. She, an art historian at Cambridge University, assures him a place and a scholarship at one of the colleges there. His side of the bargain is to gain entry to an all-male, centuries-old student fraternity called the Pitt Club and investigate its members. “I need your help,” his aunt tells him, “because I have to solve a crime.”
Armed with little more information than that, and seeing an opportunity to finally have friends and belong somewhere, Hans accepts and is soon admitted into a cloistered realm of elitism and extravagance. He parties in the Club and boxes in the ring. He ingratiates himself with other Club members but also tries to get close to the elusive Charlotte, a fellow student and protégée of Alex.
Hans continues to earn people’s trust while living a lie, and his efforts secure him access to an even more secretive and exclusive society which prioritizes depravity, misogyny and male solidarity. But after its members’ exploits come to light, along with the cause of Charlotte’s past pain, Hans sets out on a mission to exact revenge on those protected by privilege.
“The Club” starts out as a poignant coming-of-age tale and then morphs into an intelligent, fast-paced thriller that scrutinizes class divides and gender imbalance.
Hans is the main narrator, but the book also unfolds through other commanding voices. There is tough and resilient Alex, emotionally damaged Charlotte, her absurdly wealthy and seemingly untouchable father, Angus, plus several entitled young men, including oleaginous Peter and obnoxious Josh.
Würger serves up visceral thrills with boxing bouts. But he delivers real knockout blows as Hans goes deeper undercover and learns “what humans are at heart: predators.”
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Takis Wurger, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins.
Publisher: Grove Press, 212 pages, $26.
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