This debut moves from the misadventures of several boys at a British public school in 1926 to a study of a particularly hapless young man and his possible redemption.
St. Stephen’s Academy, a so-so non-Eton, is muddling along when one malevolent lad arranges a subversive prank that sparks a disciplinary backlash. Within the communal crime and punishment, Cross zooms in on the trials of Morgan Wilberforce, a 17-year-old dealing with hormones, underage females, abusive seniors, constant caning, and a few well-meaning teachers. One of the latter is John Grieves, on whom Cross expends a good deal of ink only to fade him out in the book’s second half. Morgan gets tangled in an all-boy triangle that ends tragically (though not before Cross oozes a good deal of purple prose), yet he bounces back in the annual cricket match between students and Old Boys. Finally, one offense too many gets him exiled to the home of an intriguing bishop who combines prayer, poetry, and talking cure in ministrations with an unclear outcome thanks to the novel’s slyly ambiguous ending. The cleric is the father of the academy’s new headmaster and tied to a painful time in Grieves’ youth, but these connections aren’t developed. Indeed, the book has several significant and promising loose ends that support the publisher’s bruiting about of Cross’ Rowling-esque ambitions for more volumes on St. Stephen’s & Co., perhaps achieving “the Hogwarts of adult literary fiction.” Maybe: certainly the dollops of frank sexual action will keep this installment off the teen shelves, and the absence of a single substantial female character might have more than halved the younger audience anyway.
Cross has made a solid start for continued exploration of this strange yet for many readers familiar world, one that might well capture a libidinous P.G. Wodehouse crowd, if she can render her quirky setting, cast, and concerns less earnest and more amusing.