Best in class - 8 of the best books about schools, teachers and rebellious students
From coming-of-age adventures to biting satires, Maggie Armstrong picks out eight of the greatest books about schools, teachers and rebellious students
Everybody tells you your school days are your best days even though they obviously aren't. Don't those people remember how long and grey and oppressive school was? The only silver lining to being at school was that it was possible to break the rules pretty much every second (there were so many rules to break). The rest is a blur of rain and rote-learning.
But when we get that nostalgic feeling about our days in education, it's mostly about all the times we were breaking the rules. And that seems to be what authors remember when they write about school. Being bad. Here are eight of the best books about school. They deserve top marks because rules are broken and convention stood upon. You won't find a Little House On The Prairie take on schooling anywhere that is worth reading. These are tales of rebellion, and what we can learn from them is how to break free.
A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man - James Joyce
It all begins with Portrait (1916), Joyce's coming-of-age manifesto set at the turn of the last century. The dreamy and self-conscious Stephen Dedalus moves from boarding school to day school to university, rejecting religion, embracing the sins of the flesh and discovering his vocation, as he puts it, to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race". The thousand-page hellfire sermon in the middle could have done with an edit, but Joyce's early prose is mostly magical.
Country Girl - Edna O'Brien
The Irish censor banned it and the local priest burned copies of it. All because of a few blasphemous lines which were essential to the plot (and very funny). In Edna O'Brien's infamous 1960 debut, Kate and her naughty friend Baba court trouble until they get kicked out of school. Once expelled, they learn the ways of life up in the city, where Mr Gentleman pays regular visits to Kate and everything they learnt at school is redundant.
The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
The charm of Salinger's debut was that Holden Caulfield gets the beep out of boarding school at the very start. Having flunked out of the elitist boarding school, Pencey Prep, Holden takes us on a jaunt around New York City. He is the ultimate unreliable narrator, a moody adolescent who only tells us what he feels like telling us, which is the "madman stuff" that happens when he escapes his confines.
Fathers Come First - Rosita Sweetman
This is the growing up novel every Irish girl must read. We follow Lizzie O'Sullivan from her convent boarding school in the countryside into the jungle of life, as she forgets to enrol at college and takes a variety of dodgy jobs. She attends the School of Charm for skinny models, learns to "hook, hoodwink, capture, delight, enslave and enthral men" and attracts a variety of predators. The good - and scary - thing is, Fathers hasn't dated since 1970.
Skippy Dies - Paul Murray
He may die at the start of the novel (in a donut shop having written his beloved's name in jam), but Paul Murray's 2010 novel is about life. A bunch of schoolboys in Seabrook Catholic boarding school, and their equally immature teachers, make for 600 pages of pure schoolboy entertainment. When you've finished Skippy Dies, check out Bad Day In Blackrock by Kevin Power, Nothing Human Left by Simon Ashe-Browne and Here Are The Young Men by Rob Doyle. These novels, all set during the Celtic Tiger, expose the posh Irish private school scene for what it was and still is.
Asking For It - Louise O'Neill
Louise O'Neill's second novel is like Tess Of The D'Urbervilles for the Instagram age. The main difference is that the heroine isn't actually physically hanged. Set among a group of sixth years in fictional Ballinatoom, the bestseller has echoes of Lord Of The Flies, too. Innocence is destroyed when Emma O'Donovan, a popular girl both admired and resented for her beauty, is raped at a party, and her schoolfriends scapegoat her.
Prep - Curtis Sittenfeld
Perfect lacrosse players, horrible schoolgirls, fetishised academic success. In Sittenfeld's 2005 debut novel, a 14-year-old scholarship girl named Lee joins an exclusive boarding school in Massachusetts. Four lonesome years are chronicled, giving us some close insight into the kind of creepy American privilege we have only been given a glimpse at in Hollywood movies.
Normal People - Sally Rooney
This 2018 Booker-nominated second novel from Sally Rooney opens in an Irish secondary school that is as gruelling as it is familiar to behold. A delicious love story begins between the friendless "weirdo" Marianne and the more adjusted Connell, though when they move to Dublin for university, the tables turn. In the end, no one is normal, and everyone is complicated. Delicious.