I’ve found myself reading a lot of books set in boarding schools recently. I’ve always enjoyed this kind of setting, maybe its appeal stems from when, as a teenager, I daydreamed of being sent away to a more exciting place, with new opportunities for friendship, and the possibility of having horses on site. Hah, adult me is under no illusion, but I still like books set in them.
From a literary point of view, a boarding school is one way of getting the parents out the way without killing them off. Hundreds of teenagers all under one roof, living alongside people they wouldn’t normally interact with, gives an author all sorts of dramatic possibilities.
Years ago I compiled a list of my top ten boarding school books, but what have I been reading lately? First up is The Year After You by Nina de Pass, a book I had on my Kindle for 18 months that ended up being one of my favourite reads of the year.
Nine months after the death of her best friend, and suffering from PTSD and survivor’s guilt, Cara is packed off to a Swiss boarding school. Her roommate is determined to make Cara feel welcome, even if Ren is an outsider herself. Cara is very resistant to friendship and I just loved the care put in by her new aquaintances to help her adjust to this new reality. The romance isn’t central, but it was slow burn and it was exactly the kind I wanted to just work, even if things were difficult and nothing seemed certain.
In this case, the school setting separates Cara from her old life, although her guilt and fear is not something that can be run from. Her new friends would never have been her friends in another setting, and the remote mountain location means she is more trapped than at a normal school.
A Deadly Education is set in an even less conventional school, the Scholomance, where manifestations try and kill all the students. The school magics up their assignments based on the languages they’re learning. But what endeared me to this story was that El is an outsider, who doesn’t immediately get a new set of best friends when she goes off to school.
At the start of the book, she has been there some time and is resigned to getting through it by herself. People just don’t warm to her; even her mother’s family, thinking she is part of some dark prophecy, want her gone and her magical affintiy bleeds into her ideas of what others will think of her. She might be considered one of the “bad wizards” in any other story, but she tries not to use her power to cause damage. Allies are a strategy for survival, not company. So when she very slowly starts to form relationships, it’s all the more rewarding.
Even the Poirot mystery I picked up to fulfil a challenge prompt ended up being set in a boarding school. Cat Among the Pigeons is set at the prestigious, but not necessarily traditional, Meadowbank school for girls. There’s not much Poirot in it, he just rocks up at the end to solve it. The premise was a bit silly at times, a Middle Eastern prince, expecting revolution, asks his friend to transport some jewels out of the country and he choses the belongings of his sister and her daughter to hide the jewels. Back in England, various suspects work out the jewels must be at the school, but no one there has any idea why the teachers keep getting murdered.
For an Agatha Christie novel, I felt the headmistress was surprisingly progressive in some of her views. She wanted the girls to learn more than just how to be a wife and she would correct some dodgy opinions that seem to be prevalent in Poirot stories. I felt like one of the school girls was the hero of this one.
Last year I read Ogliarchy and Vita Nostra and I’m looking forward to getting to The Magpie Society soon. I just can’t help myself, these settings are like catnip. What are your favourite boarding school stories?
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