In Kate Weinberg’s debut novel, “The Truants,” Jess Walker is a quiet, middle child who uses her cheerfully chaotic, middle-class upbringing in rural England to become something of an observer. One Christmas, a cheapskate uncle gifts all five of the Walker siblings with a single book, “The Truants,” and Jess promptly develops a lasting fascination for the book’s writer, Dr. Lorna Clay.
Clay’s thesis in her “Truants” is that in order to truly succeed, in order to achieve their full potential, writers must break the rules. But Lorna Clay isn’t talking about the rules of grammar; she’s talking about the rules of life, society, and decorum. Writers, in her eyes, should go ahead and indulge in their various vices, whether those might entail adultery, alcohol, or opium. They must give themselves over to “living life dangerously and selfishly in the pursuit of extreme insight. And the collateral damage that they left in their wake … all that dissolute, sometimes deranged behavior was vindicated through their art.”
When it’s time for university, Jess heads off to a concrete campus in the flatlands of East Anglia precisely because that is where Clay is teaching. Jess partakes of “Murdered by the Campus,” Clay’s seminar on Agatha Christie, and befriends other Clay acolytes: Georgie, a cheerful aristocrat whose upper-crustiness, easy beauty, and ready laughter barely hide a darker shade of loneliness; Nick, a clever, compassionate geology student with an entertaining sense of humor, who pretty much falls for Jess from the start; and South African Alec, a visiting Fellow and investigative journalist by profession.
The four form a tight-knit group as they go gallivanting around the wild beaches and wide-open landscape of East Anglia in Alec’s car — a hearse, no less. They enchant, engage, and sometimes frighten each other with their life-so-far stories and burgeoning life-philosophies, breaking myriad campus and non-campus rules with relish by ditching classes and doing mushrooms. Georgie hooks up with Alec, as Jess does with Nick. But Jess also nurses a deep, hot, secret crush on Alec, even as she develops an out-of-the-classroom friendship with Clay.
Weinberg’s novel is lavishly laced with references to disappearances and vanishings, from the image of Amelia Earhart on the wall of Georgie’s dorm room, to the oft-told tale of Agatha Christie squirreling herself from sight when her husband told her he had fallen for another woman. Then there’s Jess’s self-description, one which she mentions on a semi-regular basis: “my hunch is I’m not the only middle child who’s perfected the art of disappearing in plain sight.” In an intriguing aside, there’s even a story about a local 19th Century blacksmith who came and went mysteriously from the center of his hometown market, one “Vanishing Man of Mowbry.”
So just what, as Clay asks her students during class, is at the crux of someone’s desire to hide themselves away, to run away, to properly disappear? As she then points out regarding Christie’s most infamous, self-orchestrated mystery, “ ‘what she wanted, desperately, was the attention of one person. … Agatha wasn’t breaking down or seeking revenge. She wanted [her husband] to be thinking about her. All the time, just like he used to.’ ” The book positively reverberates with echoes of deceit, both purposeful and self-inflicted.
With its tangle of multiple protagonists, some of whom desperately want to be seen, some of whom would prefer to hide themselves away in perpetuity, “The Truants” emulates a nigh-on perfect slow burn, generating a pace that makes room for unexpected tragedies as well as silly student antics, drawing out multiple threads of deceptions and lies and a nearly unending river of narrative twists. As Jess, Georgie, Nick, and Alec immerse themselves in their growing friendships, their star-crossed love affairs, and explosive emotional fallouts, Weinberg reveals that she has more than a few tricks of her own up her authorial sleeve.
“The Truants” is also generously peppered with lively and evocative details: There are, as you can imagine, multiple cheeky as well as serious references to Agatha Christie and her novels. The primary characters are so acutely drawn that, even those with the most irritating traits become intriguing enough to spend time with, and Weinberg brings otherworldly landscape of East Anglia to beautifully bleak and eerie life. I took a particular shine to “Cheeses of Nazareth,” an artisanal cheese shop located next to a church; a scene in which Jess’s family is trying to get a mattress down a tricky staircase; and an instantly recognizable time of day as described by Clay: “ ‘Between five p.m. and six p.m. is what I think of as the Loafing Hour. …When caffeine is no longer a good investment but alcohol not yet a wise one. When anything you’re going to achieve that day has probably already happened and the only sensible thing to do is to sit around, shooting the [expletive] and eating cake. …The important thing is who you choose to do that with.’ ”
Very much about the tales that we tell each other and ourselves — often just to shine a little more brightly in others’ eyes, sometimes for less innocent reasons — “The Truants” is a stark reminder that storytelling, so often considered a magical form of communication, can just as easily represent a far less positive departure from the truth.
By Kate Weinberg
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 311 pp. $26
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.