“We were boys who wore suits, monkeys with manners. We didn’t have parents but were treated like babies. We were left on our own but had hundreds of rules to abide.”
Fall is one of this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize finalists. It is the coming of age story of two young men in their last year of high school and the girl they both revolve around: the beautiful and popular Fall. They attend St. Ebury’s, an exclusive boarding school in Ontario, Canada. The school caters to the children of diplomats and provides an elite education intended to send them off into the world well-equipped for the academic rigours of an Ivy League school, hopefully to follow in their parents’ footsteps. But despite the list of famous alumni and the distinguished careers of their parents, the students of St. Ebury are as much the victims of hierarchy as at any other high school. The hierarchy is based on relative wealth, appearance and social skills. In this hierarchy these two boys are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The story is told from their perspectives.
Julius, the handsome son of the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, is wealthy and popular and has the sort of magnetic personality that draws both male and female peers to him. Noel is an awkward loner whose father is a Canadian diplomat posted in Australia. He is intelligent, enjoys reading the classics of literature and philosophy, and is introverted and organized. He also has a lazy eye and an odd demeanour that causes people to be somewhat wary of him. The two boys are brought together by accident when, in their senior year, Julius’ friends all assume the popular student already has a roommate, so he ends up in the unlikely company of Noel.
Perhaps because Noel’s narrative is written from a distance of more than two decades, it is fluid and introspective, full of the small details that make him appear aloof from the events as they unfold. The sections narrated by Julius, on the other hand, are written in a stream of consciousness format that speaks to the vibrancy and energy of youth. Though his view of the world is not as perceptive or detailed as Noel’s, his mind doesn’t chase him into such dark corners.
Colin McAdam is a master of small, evocative details. He manages to sift through all the minutiae of daily boarding school life and weave these details into the story so adeptly that they create a true feeling of what it is to be a boarding school student. Having attended boarding school myself, I remember what it felt like to arrive the week before classes started, to learn a new rhythm of life and become acquainted with the roommates and fellow boarders who would, for the duration of the school year, become a makeshift family of sorts. There is a subtle adjustment that takes place from living close to parental figures but with access to the wide world to the tiny, self-contained and over-regulated world of boarding school that is far from any sense of home and protected from the outside world as if under a bubble.
Fall is not a comfortable book. It is a story of love and hate; a story of obsession. Adolescence is fraught with desires and emotions we can neither suppress nor ignore, and the pressure applied by a boarding school environment simultaneously exaggerates and stifles them. Fall is an accurate account of what it’s like to teeter on the brink of adulthood while still restricted by an abundance of supervision and strict discipline. For those who enjoy character development over fast-paced plots, this book will be an engrossing read.