THE MUTED SWAN by Bruce Arnold


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Wordiness, pretentiousness, and some of that peculiar British wetness mar this otherwise sturdy novel about one boy's last term at boarding school circa 1952--a boy with both family problems and homoerotic growing pains who finds himself caught up in some faculty crises. Third in a series which has not been widely distributed here, the book begins as the narrator-hero (who for no good reason remains nameless) is eagerly arranging a London holiday reunion for his motherless, broken family: his long-lost sister Valerie, adopted years ago by another family, now a student nurse; his elegant, aloof older brother Francis, long-estranged from their father; Father himself--an obstreperous quasi-alcoholic now living entirely, shabbily alone. And the ups and downs of this difficult situation--the first get-together is a success, the second a disaster--generate some affecting, convincing moments despite the overexplanatory narration. (All feelings are announced and annotated, including those going on ""subconsciously."") Then, however, the narrator returns to school, where the problems become less engaging and more contrived: he is soulfully attracted to younger student Wickham (a genteel, romanticized passion in the old English-prep manner); and he suspects, agonizingly, that the youngish wife of his pathetic, middle-aged housemaster is having an affair with a more vigorous faculty member. So these two dark secrets intertwine as examination-time approaches, with melodramatic results: the narrator catches the adulterous pair flagrante delicto; his love-poem to Wickham is found by the housemaster; and beloved Wickham dies due to the housemaster's negligence. . . but the narrator declines to take revenge (partly because of his feelings about that other pathetic, aging fellow--Father). Drained of Arnold's relentless, often pompous musings on ""the rocky outcrop of love"" and such, this might have been a slight yet effective tale in the old-fashioned sensitive-schoolboy genre. As it is, despite topnotch, atmospheric dialogue and those touching first chapters, it's pretty much a slog--especially for readers unfamiliar with the previous books in this presumptuous, projected ""tetralogy.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (North Pomfret, VT 05053)