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Sufficient time will have passed for most of those who grew up in the 80s – now in their 30s and 40s – to have put their childhoods into perspective. What did it all mean, and what was gained or lost in the interim? One type of response to one’s past experience, of course, is to write about it, whether in terms of autobiography or fiction. Amber Dermont (herself a graduate of the selective Massachusetts prep school Tabor Academy and liberal arts college Vassar), has written a debut novel about the dark side of American private school life. In it, the 80s come to stand for a loss of innocence and a pervasive, if outwardly restrained, amorality. It is a tale in which youth equals transgression, and money – that prime 80s signifier – leads to corruption. The past is another, and very unpleasant country.
At the start of Dermont’s novel, the narrator, Jason Prosper, tells of the tragic death of his sailing partner and friend Cal. Cal committed suicide at boys’ prep school Kensington, and Jason subsequently transferred to Bellingham Academy in New England, desperate to put some distance between his past and himself. Bellingham is where wealthy parents’ children go when they have, in one way or another, failed to progress at their previous educational establishments. Dermont sums it up neatly with the phrase “If you could pay, you could stay”.
Bellingham is full of troubled souls: drug-taking, hard-partying, aggressive (but also sometimes otherworldly) young men and women. Jason, it turns out, already knows some of the young men there, and they are eager to include him in their parties. But it all goes wrong when Jason goes sailing with one of them, capsizing the boat and nearly drowning his new friend. Now distrusted by the boys, he instead befriends a slightly ethereal girl, Aidan, who is scorned by most of the other pupils in the school. After a somewhat difficult start, Aidan seems genuinely attracted to Jason and a tentative love affair begins. At this point, though, things go seriously awry, and The Starboard Sea turns into a kind of upmarket thriller.
The Starboard Sea’s style, plot and evocation of youthful experience have lasting appeal. Dermont is concerned about writing well, making her words seem beautiful in their own right. This is particularly evident in the passages dealing with the sea and with sailing, when Jason becomes less self-conscious and focuses instead on describing his love of nature and physical activity. Yet the novel is not high literary fiction; there is too much plot (not a bad thing!) to make it quite that. Also, the sense of youth presented is not a wholly negative, troubled one. Remembering one’s school days, even if they were deeply unpleasant, can often become a deeply involving , even romantic experience. The novel conveys a sense of nostalgia for first impressions and actions that is particularly interesting, although it does not seem entirely intentional.
Beyond this, there is one important aspect of the novel that does not become clear until almost the end. Without giving anything away, Dermont reveals a twist that makes her preceding story all of a sudden appear more powerful and ambiguous at one fell swoop. Unfortunately, this new, unexpected development, ingenious as it is, comes slightly too late in the tale for it to be entirely effective. More could have been done, earlier on, to have made the novel as interesting as it then becomes. On reflection, I felt that it only hints at another, sharper tale that could have been told.
The Starboard Sea is overall a commendable debut novel. It will appeal to both popular and critical readers, blending generic literary elements to create its own voice and effects. Dermont is a writer to watch, not so much for her plot or feel for language, as for her ability to present (albeit too fleetingly in this instance) fascinating moral ambiguity. Such ambiguities, of course, are not restricted to America in the 80s. It will be interesting to see what Dermont will do next.
Andre van Loon
Andre van Loon is a freelance literary critic, specialising in new British and American novels and studies of Russian nineteenth century literature. He holds an MA in English Literature & Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh and lives in London.