“I’ve been looking for the exit sign for as long as I can remember,” says Jess Walker, relieved to have finally broken free of her dull upbringing in an English provincial town. Her new home — a concrete eyesore of a university — offers little in the way of escapist glamour or aesthetic beauty, but it does bring her into contact with some unique individuals whose actions, obsessions and mind games topple her preconceptions, then overturn her world.
At the center of the gathering storm is Jess’ tutor and later mentor, Dr. Lorna Clay, a brilliant though radical academic on a mission to reappraise the work of Agatha Christie. Jess becomes Lorna’s devoted student, and outside of her studies is inspired by her teacher to break rules and follow her desires.
Jess’ friends have similar agendas. There is Georgie, the beautiful party-loving aristocrat, whose physical scars hint at a troubled past and whose impulsive nature gives rise to wayward antics. Alec is a South African journalist who has witnessed other people’s horrors back home and now lives life entirely on his own terms. Geology student Nick is the sensible one but is more than happy to be led astray, particularly if it helps him get closer to Jess.
However, the close-knit group unravels when illicit intimacies turn into open betrayals. Tragedy strikes again when one member dies under suspicious circumstances. In search of support and guidance, Jess travels to Lorna’s Italian island refuge. But while there she makes a discovery that lays bare a web of deceit and forces her to see people she previously trusted in a harsh new light.
“The Truants” is an incredibly accomplished debut. London-based author Kate Weinberg blends choice components from various types of books — campus novel, bildungsroman, crime thriller, murder mystery — and creates an intriguing composite. Agatha Christie’s presence is felt in the whodunit aspect — but so too is her absence. Lorna is fascinated by that strange chapter of Christie’s life in which the author went missing for 11 days. Weinberg is, too, for her novel is full of “truants,” characters who stealthily elope or inexplicably vanish. Christie’s words — “People disappear when they most want to be seen” — are transformed into a mantra-like motif, one that acquires significance as the plot thickens.
Weinberg is less adept in other areas. She scatters tantalizing hints of danger ahead (“I looked at him and saw the flame of life. People kill for less, you know”) but makes us wait over half the book until a murder is announced. And although her characters are awe-struck by Lorna (“Some kind of current transmitted from her,” Jess gushes; “She really is hypnotic,” enthuses Nick), it is hard for the reader to feel any mesmerizing force.
In every other respect Weinberg excels, delivering a well-crafted page-turner full of love triangles and vicious circles, secrets and suspense. Escapist fiction of the highest order.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Kate Weinberg.
Publisher: Putnam, 311 pages, $26.