Grievous: A Novel
This intense, unwieldy, and moving narrative about lives of quiet and not-so-quiet desperation is the sequel to the critically celebrated Wilberforce, set, like this one, in an English boy’s school in Yorkshire. St. Stephen’s Academy is a middling sort of school, antiquarian in its values but far less afflicted by class snobbishness than the usual Etonian setting. Five years have elapsed since the time of the first novel, but it’s not necessary to have read it to appreciate Cross’s fine eye for detail and empathy for the human condition. In fact, the structure and revelations of Grievous pretty much repeat those of its predecessor, so it might suffice to read one or the other.
Both books are fervent, overlong, and claustrophobic, but ultimately rewarding in their emotional insights. Like its predecessor, this novel is crammed with masses of colorful details of public-school cruelty, swotting, cricket, 1930s schoolboy slang, and homoerotic yearning, but it adds a web of family entanglements that expands the setting and allows the reader a glimpse of the confusion and ennui that afflicted the British professional classes between the World Wars.
The focus in this novel shifts from the students to the teachers, particularly the complicated relationship between John Grieves (whose school nickname provides the title) and his Headmaster, Jamie Sebastian, his childhood classmate/lover, now boss and married man. As the main characters travel around Europe in the holidays, Grieves’ precocious goddaughter, Cordelia, and his favorite student, sullen Gray Riding, begin a correspondence that threatens to reveal all their adult guardians’ closely-guarded secrets. Those secrets are not particularly unexpected, but their weight is felt by a large cast of characters who learn their most important lessons outside of school—about trust, memory, intimacy, and love.