Justin Evans hopefully had a much more enjoyable experience as an American student abroad than he gives Andrew in his latest novel, The White Devil. As a former student, the author provides the story with a level of authenticity of living conditions only he could share.
However, the school is not as interesting nor as well-examined, as I would have hoped — though that's because his characters did not leave room for a dank, damp, drafty old school.
Andrew is sent overseas to straighten out his life at Harrow, an an English boarding school his father declares is his son's "last chance" at — redemption, regret, attitude adjustment, maybe all of the above. Alas, his uncanny resemblance to a famous, beautiful alumnus draws the attention from an unlikely source: the school ghost.
This is not just any old ghost. Rather, this one is linked to a larger-than-life Harrow alumnus steeped in lore and mystery — and, most importantly, romance.
Being inside the head of a teenage boy for a few hundred pages was truly educational. Additionally, this beautiful boy had no shortage of suitors, including young women with bad reputations and hormone-focused agendas. And yet there was still time for research, essay-writing, reading poetry, rehearsing a play and getting, ahem, to know other people (not least of which is a promiscuous, lonely and pitiful teenage girl surrounded by boys).
The story was fraught with emotion, hormones, fear (imagined and real) and chance. It required staid characters to climb out of their comfort zones, which can be exciting. I liked the characters, staid and unhinged. Some were drawn with very bold, thick strokes, but sometimes finding the familiar in a character makes the story easier to follow.
After finishing the book, I needed to think about it. I was a little disappointed with the ending, which at first seemed too obvious, having been telegraphed from one of the (too obvious) clues in the novel. However, in retrospect, it makes sense — and carries the terribly, terribly romantic story to a nearly Wagnerian ending.
In the end, it was an interesting treatment of a ghost story, unique enough to keep the die-hard ghosty interested and familiar enough to satisfy traditionalists.