Rupture by Simon Lelic

25 January 2010
The Times
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This tale of a London comprehensive is absorbing, convincing and truly frightening

Simon Lelic’s debut novel, about a teacher who turns out to be a psychopath, is genuinely frightening. Lelic manages to evoke in crisp, accessible prose what it’s like to work in a modern school where bullying is rife. Perhaps most terrifying of all is the author’s gift for characterisation, which means that by the end of the book the reader actually sympathises with a murderous pedagogue.

The novel effectively subverts a great many clichés about school. The setting here is a mundane London comprehensive: drab classrooms, corridors and cubbyholes are atmospherically described and create a sense of claustrophobia. The narrative is gripping as the reader pieces together the reasons a teacher from a Polish family, Samuel Szajkowski, runs amok in a school assembly, killing three pupils and a teacher before turning the gun on himself.

The novel focuses primarily on Detective Lucia May’s painstaking investigation; alternate chapters present us with her interviews with witnesses and her own struggles with some appalling colleagues. Her search for the truth becomes an epic one when it becomes clear that her superiors, the media and the school want easy answers, but May’s quest for the facts forces her to delve deeper.

I’ve taught in several comprehensive schools over the past 20 years, and recognised many of the figures in the book: the political head teacher who, while obsessed with appearances, looks the other way as bullying flourishes; the brutal, sporty teacher who despises anyone who is different; the weak-willed teacher who moves from one failed affair to another; the harassed pupil failed by institution, family and society. At the heart of the novel, however, is not a teacher at all, but the female detective, May, who seems to represent values that the public sector has largely lost: empathy, creativity, a desire to do the right thing. Lelic’s novel fuses the police procedural and school genres, twisting many familiar situations and characters into the stuff of chillingly realistic nightmares.

Rupture by Simon Lelic (Picador, £12.99; Buy this book; 309pp)

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