Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 14, 2011

Skippy Dies (2010), by Paul Murray

School stories were the staple of my childhood reading, but never anything like Skippy Dies! This maelstrom of ideas is the tale of two universes in an Irish boys school in Dublin: the world of the teachers who are in their own way as adolescent as their students; and the boys they teach who teeter on the precipice of adolescence in mortal disarray.

The novel throbs with testosterone.  Mr (Howard) Fallon aches with love for Miss (Aurelie) McIntyre, who arcs across his forlorn life as a history teacher like a falling star when she arrives as a replacement geography teacher.  For her he abandons his fading relationship with Halley, only to find that Aurelie vanishes without a trace.  (Yes, their names are metaphors).

Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster discovers love in the form of Lori from St Brigid’s next door, but it might just as well be another universe since the sexes are strictly segregated – except for one magical night at the annual ‘Hop’.

Ruprecht Van Duren, the school geek, experiments with SETI (the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence) and makes a toy android teleport.  But he can’t verify the experiment as any good scientist should; this makes his friends take up research for the ancient Celtic little people who (just happen to be located in a mound at St B’s) and might be residual aliens who hold the secret of life in another dimension.

Back in the real world, Skippy’s obsession with Lori leads him into conflict with School Bully Carl, a psychopathic drug-dealer with homicidal tendencies – but of course the teachers know nothing about this.  They’re busy with their own internecine warfare over modernisation of the school.  Much like the trench warfare that Howard is teaching about, where the universe of grand battles fought to match a master plan bore no reality to the chaos of the foot-soldiers on the battlefields, so too the glory of reform for the Seabrook Boarding School remains an idea rather than an actuality.

I wish I could say that this novel lives up to its grand ambitions.  It was shortlisted for the Booker after all.  But I found my attention wandering when I was reading it (especially during the stuff about Ruprecht’s theories of physics) and I never found myself in any hurry to get back to it.

The adolescent banter was mildly funny but alas, we’ve heard all that before in our own long-forgotten adolescence, and the teachers are all so dull that I wonder that any of their students might ever make it to Trinity or anywhere else.   The message, however, is that whatever their flaws, teachers make a difference, which seemed just a little too neat at the end.

Bite the Book enjoyed it and so did Kevin from Canada, and there’s an interview with Murray here.

Author: Paul Murray
Title: Skippy Dies!
Publisher: Penguin (Hamish Hamilton) 2010
ISBN: 9780241144978
Source: Kingston Library

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