FALL by Colin McAdam
âLike most private schools it was part fantasy, part reality, and therefore all reality. (âŚ) We were boys who wore suits, monkeys with manners. We didnât have parents but were treated like babies. We were left on our own but had hundreds of rules to abide by.â
Review by Vesna McMasterÂ (DEC 13, 2010)
Iâd seen Fall described as a âliterary whodunit,â and was looking forward to some good sleuthing. Itâs not quite like that. Mystery is involved, but plot and intrigue are entirely secondary to the study of adolescent development.
The two main narrative voices are Noel and Julius, both students at St Edburyâs â a Canadian high school for the children of the wealthy. Juliusâs narration is an unpunctuated stream of consciousness, immediate and sensory. Heâs good-looking, not overly bright and (as the story progresses) increasingly shown to be good-natured.
By contrast Noelâs prose is highly structured â more so than would be possible for the age group. This is excused by the account being written retrospectively from an adult standpoint. Within the novel, itâs only Noel that is examined in detail and whose changes are viewed. Most of the other characters are almost static emotionally. Thereâs also a nominal contribution from William, Juliusâs fatherâs driver.
The âFallâ of the title is the name of one of the few girls in the predominantly male school, and is short for âFallon.â Fall is dating Julius: theyâre the ideal couple, both popular and attractive. Noel is obsessed with Fall as well, though he never declares it to her, but instead continues to state in the narrative that his turn with her will come later. The plot (such as it is) revolves around the disappearance of Fallon from the campus grounds, with both Julius and Noel being questioned about it.
What the novel is concerned with is the development of Noel from a weedy sixteen year old who wonât retaliate if pushed down in a corridor, to a seemingly self-confident, possibly self-knowing sociopath, prone to explosive violence at rare moments. When he visits his family in Sydney near the outset of the book, he describes himself:
âOne day I came out of the pool and saw myself reflected in our sliding door. I was a pale and skinny sixteen-year-old who had forgotten to put sunblock on one of his shoulders. My lazy eye was swollen shut, my face was ugly and drained, my shoulder was livid, and I was still unformed.â
Itâs the âunformedâ that McAdam is concerned with. The environment the teenagers are put into is portrayed as artificial, unhealthy. Despite being highly supervised, there are effectively no adults in the childrenâs lives. Itâs noticeable that Juliusâs mother is dead (she committed suicide), Fallonâs father is absent (her parents are divorced) and Noelâs family is supposedly intact but theyâre as far away as they can be, in Australia.
The implication is that growing up in this unnatural environment, the children inevitably miss out on vital components of life. Like plants deprived of isolated nutrients, theyâre prone to becoming emotionally stunted â lop-sided, etiolated. Â In Sydney, as Noel prepares to leave his parentsâ house for school at the end of the holidays, his mother says to him:
âI donât like seeing how much youâre changing. âŚ Iâm missing all your changes.â
When adults donât keep a watch on the changes children go through, undesirable developments multiply unnoticed.Â There are key incidents that serve as markers along the road to Noelâs increasingly antisocial tendencies. The first is an incident in 9th grade, mainly described by Chuck, a close associate of Julius and Noelâs. The incident involves Noel (still in his âunformedâ state) being bullied by a larger boy, and after a fair period of non-retaliation suddenly turning and biting his tormentorâs arm. Chuck says it wasnât even the fact that he physically bit a piece out of a fellow studentâs arm, but that afterwards Noel was absolutely unaffected by it. ââŚlike it was all normal for him. Like he just forgot about it.â Itâs not the incident itself that the stolid Chuck finds disturbing, but the separation from a workaday mentality.
Nuances and hints are brushed in lightly but deliberately. In the corridor of a quiet Friday afternoon when not many other people are about, Noel passes Mr Staples:
âwho taught Algebra and Functions, nodded at me and said, âMr Reece.â His lips were tight and there was a look in his eyes that had developed a few years earlier whenever he saw me. Distrust or caution or just that squint of a half-formed opinion. I never liked him.â
Here Noel is narrating, but he doesnât refer to the biting incident specifically, but simply as âa few years earlier.â In the lop-sided world of the semi-abandoned school, even the teacherâs opinion is possibly “half-formed.”
Thereâs also an ambiguous encounter with a girl at the gym in Sydney, where Noel first starts working out. Meg is a no-nonsense girl and is pointedly stronger than Noel at the time, but after an encounter at a midnight beach suddenly stops turning up at the gym. Noel writes her a letter of apology for âfrighteningâ her, but as far as Noelâs own account relates, there has been nothing to justify this apology. One is left to wonder what happened after Noelâs pen stopped writing.
This is the case throughout Noelâs account. How self-aware is he? Although itâs deliberately left unanswered, the fact that heâs writing after (what is obviously) extensive discussion and analysis, as well as brief pointers, suggest that Noel is quite aware of his own nature. When heâs sitting in a cafĂŠ with Fallon, he narrates:
âIâve often tried to see the world through her eyes. I know that cafĂŠ looked different to her than it did to me.â
This brings us to the issue of lack of empathy. Critics of the book have pointed out that characters are not rounded, theyâre cut-outs. Particularly Fall, the prime object of desire. Weâre not at all clear Â what she looks like, or anything about her other than sheâs a reasonably attractive, decent girl with a slightly troubled family background. The point about Fall is, however, not why she is desirable, but that she is. In the two-dimensional mind of an underdeveloped human with an insufficient intake of adult stability, the fact that she is desirable is much more important than what she actually is. As readers, we need know no more. In a world reduced to symbols and arbitrary black-and-white areas, protagonists are unable to function when they collide with real life or emotion â the “grey” areas, within themselves and in the external world.
The premature separation from parents caused by boarding school is juxtaposed with the infantilisation of physically mature boys. The school imposes rules, often ineffectual and seemingly arbitrary. Julius says:
âChuckâs bed is here and Antâs bed is there and Iâm wondering why Iâm eighteen years old and sleeping in a bunk bed.â
These two aspects of the evils inflicted by the school seem to combine to create a small vortex strong enough to suck susceptible minds into an emotional limbo. McAdam himself went to a similar boarding school, and there is without doubt a great deal of catharsis and self-healing within the volume. This does not make it less worthwhile a read.
Once again, on hearing the novel was a âliterary whodunitâ with the title of Fall, I expected perhaps a detectiveâs journey into the abyss of a killerâs mind, which drags the detective into a biblical âFallâ in the process. In the first analysis, one might be disappointed going in with these expectations. However, in retrospect, this is precisely what it is â except that the detective is the reader, and McAdam tries his best to share the âfallâ in a manner that will be participated in, also by the reader. Here, though, the state before the fall is not some prelapsarian innocence. Itâs more mere ignorance, unformedness. The protagonists lurch from being unformed to being malformed, no pause inbetween. Itâs perhaps more chilling for this, as for all their two-dimensionality, they are in their own way entirely believable.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 24 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Riverhead Trade; 1 Reprint edition (June 1, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page for Colin McAdam|
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December 13, 2010
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Tags: Boarding School, Mental Health/Illness, Murder Mystery Âˇ Posted in: Canada, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Mystery/Suspense, Reading Guide, y Award Winning Author