Fiction

The Best Boarding School Novels

recommended by Anbara Salam

Belladonna by Anbara Salam

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Belladonna
by Anbara Salam

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Boarding schools make great settings for novels, says Anbara Salam, author of coming-of-age drama Belladonna. The combination of immense privilege with the claustrophobia of a closed society can create an intense pressure cooker atmosphere in which characters might be forged.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Belladonna by Anbara Salam

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Belladonna
by Anbara Salam

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Your novel Belladonna is set in an elite Italian school. What is it about boarding schools that makes for good books?

Belladonna is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who accepts a scholarship to go to a prestigious art academy in Italy in the 1950s, where she’s convinced that she’s going to have opportunities to monopolise the attention of her glamorous and unpredictable best friend. It’s about the year that they spend there together, and the tensions in their relationship.

My first novel was set on a remote island in the South Pacific. So there must be something I’m really drawn to about isolated, almost claustrophobic societies; you essentially trap your characters in a space and watch the drama unfold.

As for boarding schools… I grew up in central London, and went to a normal day school. But for some reason those cheesy old fashioned novels about boarding schools—you know, the Chalet School series, or Mallory Towers—really appealed to me. I almost don’t know why. It was not a part of my experience growing up in zone two; I didn’t even see a cow until I was 23. The idea of these rural, idyllic settings where privileged children had so much independence—I found it mesmerising. So, when I was sitting down to think about my second novel, those ideas came back to me: the claustrophobia, the luxury and privilege of that sort of bubble.

I think I have a similar relationship to those novels. When I was a child, I became obsessed with a private boarding school that advertised in every issue of a magazine I subscribed to. The students had their own rooms, and you could take your own horse. It was my fantasy. I collected the leaflets and kept them in my bedside drawer.

I know, right? Chalet School was my secret guilty pleasure; you don’t want anyone to catch you reading Chalet School when you’re like a kid in a normal, inner-city London school, and should know better than to fantasize about hot chocolates and skiing. Like, I’ve never been skiing—I don’t even know anyone who has been skiing. So the inaccessibility of the fantasy is part of the appeal.

Well, this reading list of boarding school novels you’ve compiled is just an absolute joy. Let’s talk about the first novel, which features a school with a sinister twist: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Never Let Me Go is an unusual book. I guess it’s speculative fiction, or science fiction. I don’t really know where you would put it in the genre landscape.

Right. It was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize, and for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, a major prize for science fiction. It’s a dystopia, in as much as these pupils are organ ‘donors’, essentially a bundle of spare parts for the person they were cloned from.

A lot of people see this book as one that explores lost opportunities, but I never really read it like that. For me, it’s a book that’s about the hypocrisy of adults. It’s set in a school, Hailsham, where the students are protected ‘for their own good’ from knowledge of the adult world. Information is never divulged to the students directly, but leaked to them, so that they gain slow acceptance of their fate.

Even if you’re not about to get your organs harvested, I think the book accurately reflects how the adult world feels so tantalisingly close as an adolescent, and the secrecy surrounding the adult world— little snippets of it are revealed to you, but never actually discussed. There’s all this inference at play. And then there’s the adults’ attitudes towards sexuality… The teachers say, ‘Oh, sex is healthy and a great thing to do… but don’t do it.’ Something about the hypocrisy of the adult messaging in that novel is so poignant, even though the setting and situation itself is so outside of everyday experience.

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The other thing that’s always struck me about that book is how, as we see often in coming of age novels—especially boarding school novels, where you have a closed environment—your friendships become your whole world. At the point in the novel where Ruth and Tommy become a couple, Kathy is shut out of their relationship. They have an intimacy she has no access to, and the novel explores her intense loneliness, it’s so isolating. So the novel depicts a painfully relatable experience, even though it’s such a specific set up.

I’ve spoken to quite a few authors of speculative fiction recently. One thing people often say about that genre is that it is, essentially, allegory: a prism through which we look at our own society. And I think this is a good example of that: it’s a dystopia, but it tells us so much about our own society and relationships.

Absolutely. I also think that, in this novel, there’s a strong sense of nostalgia and foreboding mixed together, or innocence and foreboding, which is so reflective of that adolescent experience. I didn’t take away from the book what everyone else did—I didn’t feel sorry for Kathy and Tommy, their lost love. Because the whole point was that it was a mirage, you know? And so much of adulthood is a mirage. School can’t adequately prepare you for the ‘real’ world, only for the version of the world that adults are willing to project.

The second novel you want to discuss is Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor. It’s published in the UK and Nigeria as What Sunny Saw in the Flames.

I always find it an interesting puzzle when a novel is published with a different title in different territories—I always want to know: what’s the tension behind those changes?

It’s technically a YA novel, but it’s extremely dark. Essentially, it’s about a 13-year-old girl called Sunny who was born in America and lives in Nigeria. She is of Nigerian heritage, and also has albinism. She discovers she has magical powers, and is initiated into a magical society and trained for this new second life as an Akata witch. It’s quite an unusual narrative, and I get the sense from other people I’ve talked to who have read it that either you love it or hate it.

I cheated with this one, I have to confess, because it’s not actually a boarding school that she attends; rather, as she and her friends discover their newfound magical abilities, they are initiated into the learning system of this new magical world. And so alongside her usual schooling, she has to attend secret school sessions with her mentor. A lot of this takes place in a particular magical zone called Leopard Knocks. I think it works as a hypothetical boarding school novel because, again, it does such a great job of running those two lives you have as an adolescent in parallel: there’s the life that you have with your parents, your family, homework. Then there’s the parallel life where you have this kind of secret identity that you forge through mentors, a found family that you select for yourself. In the book, there’s a magical taboo that stops Sunny from being able to communicate her separate life to her family. But there’s a clear analogy there about inhabiting those split identities.

“There’s a lot you can read into YA novels—that moment where your identity begins to separate from your childhood and your family life”

The pace is unrelenting: information comes really fast. It’s been compared to a Nigerian Harry Potter series, which I think does it a terrible disservice. The magical world that Sunny and her friends belong to is so idiosyncratic, so vibrant, so dangerous and deadly. There’s no safety net whatsoever. There are deaths, bloody beatings, at the end Sunny and her friends get sent to fight a serial killer who murders children. The lack of protection in this parallel world just reinforces the importance of those relationships the children have with each other.

I have to be honest, this was published in 2011 and some aspects haven’t aged that well, for example, the main character’s albinism is kind of ‘cured’ by magic. But the book overall is so refreshing and arresting.

That sounds great. YA has been having a moment these last few years; there have been a lot of crossover successes, as adults get into the books too. There’s the Hunger Games trilogy, the Maze Runner series, and so on.

Coming-of-age novels often are categorised as part of the YA genre, which I sometimes find frustrating. But even as an adult, there’s a lot you can read into YA novels, particularly that moment where your identity begins to separate from your childhood and your family life.

Absolutely. Adolescence is such an interesting, intense period of life. My father has a theory that the person you are by the age of 17 is the person you’ll be for the rest of your life, and I think I agree. But let’s move on: we’ve reached Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld.

It’s a real Marmite book. People either love it or they absolutely hate it. Look at the way it’s marketed: it looks like a Gossip Girl novel. The other edition that’s quite famous is a white page with a pink and green belt cinched across the front; the semiotics of it are really quite patronising, and I think you see that quite often with coming of age novels aimed at a female readership. This doesn’t look like an adult fiction book, but Curtis Sittenfeld is a very serious and accomplished writer.

I sent this book to my sister recently and had to write a little note on the front to say ‘please don’t be put off by the cover!’ I only read it myself because I read American Wife, which won all kinds of awards—that’s a fictionalised biography of Laura Bush, which sounds wacky, but it’s fantastic. So I thought I’d give this a try because American Wife is phenomenal. Anyway, Prep is terrific.

Yes, I’ll be honest, I hadn’t read this book until now, because it just didn’t look like my kind of thing. But I’ve just finished it—charged through it, practically in a single sitting—and loved it.

So it’s a coming-of-age novel set at a fancy school in Massachusetts called Ault, and its entirely inside the head of this young girl called Lee, who is a very unlikeable, passive, whiny and kind of standoffish young woman, who’s convinced that she’s the consummate victim. That’s what makes the book such a great read; it’s a microscopically accurate, vivid portrayal of adolescent awkwardness and interiority.

Okay, I’m a middle class white girl—or, a white-passing girl—so maybe I relate more to the interiority of this character more than other people might. But Sittenfeld does such a great job of narrating the social nuances of adolescent life inside this hermetically sealed bubble of privilege. The characters are largely ignorant of their privilege; Lee is totally convinced that she is an outcast, misunderstood, unloved. She’s the epitome of the unlikeable narrator.

Yes, I agree. It really gets across that blazing hot, pressure-cooker atmosphere we were talking about, the sense of characters being forged right there in front of your eyes. The stakes are quite low, but they feel high.

The other thing that’s interesting about this book is that, because the character is so aware of all the ritualistic behaviours and nuances of the social order, it makes her feel worthy. The fact that she has to be so hyper-vigilant gives her a sense of self-importance that is condensed into the school years, in a way that’s not carried over to adulthood. The narrator talks a bit about how she feels almost disappointed with the adult world. No one really cares if you haven’t brushed your hair when you go to the bank. No one really cares who you’re having drinks with after work. That level of minutiae in your life isn’t social currency.

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So I find that an interesting blip on the boarding school novel experience—that the real world is a bit of a let down. It doesn’t offer the opportunity for performativity on a constant basis, which allows an adolescent to define who they are against who they are not.

Yes, I suppose this sense of clear rules—social or otherwise—is exactly what we miss in adulthood. We often don’t know how to behave, and those around us don’t know either.

The other thing I like is that the character doesn’t really grow or learn anything. That’s quite refreshing, actually. There’s no didactic lesson in there, it’s just like: maybe Lee should have snapped out of it. I think a lot of people who read the book don’t get that vibe from it. But, oh, it’s very good.

Great. Let’s talk about Beth Gutcheon’s The New Girls.

I feel almost protective of Beth Gutcheon. People don’t read as much of her as they should.

I see she’s had a number of bestsellers, but I admit I hadn’t heard of her until you recommended this book.

Every time I go into a bookshop, I go to the G section and see what might be kicking around, because it’s actually quite hard to get hold of her books. She wrote a novel called Still Missing, which was reissued a few years ago as part of Persephone Books’ initiative to republish books that had fallen out of print. Still Missing is a fast-paced thriller. I read it in two hours, and it just blew me away. I thought: ‘how come I’ve never heard of this author?’

The New Girls was her first novel. It’s about a group of five young women who go to an elite boarding school in Maine in 1960, and it follows their lives through high school and slightly beyond. It was a huge influence on my novel Belladonna, which is set in 1958.

What I found really interesting about this book is that essentially these girls were the last of their generation, in the sense that they’re the last of this very privileged group of young women attending fancy finishing school. By the time they leave in 1964, that world doesn’t really exist any more. These girls go on to live through the Civil Rights movement, through Vietnam, through the pill, sexual liberation… all of this stuff is happening as a backdrop to their coming of age. And yet, because of their privilege, they’re insulated and protected from it.

“It’s everything you want from a boarding school novel because it has this claustrophobic, elite group of young, pretty people struggling with their identity”

So in a sense, it’s everything you want from a boarding school novel because it has this claustrophobic, elite group of young, pretty people struggling with their identity, yet they are completely ignorant and naïve, as yet untouched by a world that’s about to radically change the lives of everybody around them. Something about that dynamic I find really tantalising. We, as readers, are bringing our own understanding to the text as well. The book was published, I think, in the late seventies. It was written almost as a retrospective of the last group of these finishing school young ladies wearing little white gloves and thinking that they’re going to go off and become housewives and throw cocktail parties. Okay, that’s a bit dismissive. But that’s the general mood of their expectations.

It’s quite a poignant book, but manages to do it without being too precious. It explores their relationship with sex, with drugs, with their families. One of them has an affair with an older man, one of them has an eating disorder. So it still manages to tackle some of the topics of adulthood.

The way you talk about this book reminds me of Mary McCarthy’s brilliant novel The Group.

I haven’t read that, actually, but I’ve heard people describing this as a kind of counterpart to The Group.

It has a similar set up, in that it follows a group of fresh graduates from Vassar College as they move from this exclusive, hot-housed environment into a slightly unfriendly world, and have to adapt. It’s set in the 1930s, but you get the sense of their social world being in a similar state of flux. And they deal with drugs and contraception and so forth, although of course back then it was the diaphragm and the douche, not the pill. I read it only recently, which is why it jumped to mind.

But there’s something that historical fiction can offer us, because we have that inbuilt perspective as readers. Structurally, we have knowledge that the characters don’t have. With The New Girls, we understand how fragile the girls are and how fragile that world is. There’s a tension there, because as a reader, you want to puncture it. But you also want to protect their innocence. It’s a good read, I recommend Beth Gutcheon. I’d love if more people would read her work.

Next we have a relatively new book, a debut that made a big splash in early 2020. This is My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell.

So, I raced through this book. It had been ages since I’d been so conscious of a book in my house that I just couldn’t wait to get back to. But, having said that, it’s not exactly a pleasant read; it’s an uncomfortable book to read. It’s really, really gripping.

Essentially, the narrator Vanessa is accepted into this very fancy boarding school, Browick, where she enters into a sexual relationship with a teacher. Because it’s articulated from the older Vanessa’s perspective, again we have an understanding as a reader of something that the character themselves is a little bit resistant to understanding.

“Her ambivalence towards the school—she feels resentful of it and victimised, angry—totally mash up with her feelings about her abuser”

Vanessa becomes almost stuck at, fixated on, this period when she was being groomed by this teacher. She finds herself as an adult unable to move past that moment in her life, being unable to form new relationships, and fixated on the validation that she attributed to that abuse. What makes it so interesting, I think, is that as a reader you become almost complicit in her nostalgia for her school days as an adult, when we’re aware that what’s happening to her is abusive and manipulative and horrific. Yet the narrative has this weird effect, where the period of her abuse before she leaves the school has this odd prelapsarian quality to it. We recognise as readers that that’s completely mistaken, and so the experience of reading it is one of real discomfort and uncanniness.

The abuse that takes place really wouldn’t have been possible without that boarding school environment. The whole structure of her memories about the school, and the claustrophobia of the stalking and obsession, is so tied up with the school. Her ambivalence towards the school—she feels resentful of it and victimised, angry—totally mash up with her feelings about her abuser. It’s very interesting.

I’ve read that initially Kate Elizabeth Russell wrote this as a more straightforward story of forbidden love. But over the years while she was working on it, she began to think of the relationship she was portraying in a different light.

I thought it was very perceptive about the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive traumatic ordeals. That doesn’t make it unproblematic, necessarily. But I also think it’s an interesting addition to the boarding school genre in that sense, because we’re getting the picture of a nightmare, one that the protagonist is unable to extricate herself from and convinces herself later that she was unwilling to.

Well, we started this discussion by talking about how appealing we found the idea of boarding schools as a teenager—partly thanks to their portrayal in novels. In hindsight, how do you feel about that now?

I’m very, very glad I did not go. I think there’s a period, maybe when you’re around 13, when there’s something so alluring and intoxicating about the independence that adulthood promises, and boarding school becomes a cipher for that—you can see your friends whenever you want, adults are not watching you and telling you what to do all the time.

But once you’ve gained your independence and become an adult, that does not have any appeal whatsoever any more. It feels more like a panopticon. But I understand why that would have had an appeal for a young me eager to get out and forge an independent life.

Right. Children’s books often focus on orphans because, for the story to work, they need the protagonist to be away from the safe, controlling presence of the parent. Otherwise the amount of conflict and peril required for the narrative might not arise. I think maybe the appeal of boarding school comes from a similar instinct; it’s a way of transmuting that yearning for adventure and excitement into a form that doesn’t involve actually wishing ill upon your own family.

Exactly. And there’s still structure; I imagined it would be like staying at a fancy hotel with all your friends for four years, having pillow fights. I think there’s a luxury and a structured freedom in boarding school—you can’t separate those two things from its appeal.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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Anbara Salam

Anbara Salam is a novelist. She is half-Palestinian, half-Scottish, and grew up in London. She has a PhD in theology and now lives and works in Oxford. She is the author of the novels Things Bright and Beautiful and Belladonna.

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Anbara Salam

Anbara Salam is a novelist. She is half-Palestinian, half-Scottish, and grew up in London. She has a PhD in theology and now lives and works in Oxford. She is the author of the novels Things Bright and Beautiful and Belladonna.