Kate Weinberg’s debut novel, The Truants, pulls dark academia out of the elite and picturesque colleges of America and plunges it into a Brutalist-style university found in the east of England. Jess Walker begins her undergraduate degree enthralled by her enigmatic professor, Lorna Clay, whose class on the master storyteller Agatha Christie sets the scene for the rest of the novel and its mysteries. Lorna flirts with the boundaries of student-teacher relationships and is dogged by rumours regarding her quick departure from Cambridge some years prior. That doesn’t stop Jess and her friends hanging on her every last word, often visiting her home for evening chats over coffee and wine.
Jess quickly falls comfortably into a drug-fuelled foursome made up of herself; her new boyfriend, Nick; the rich and wild Georgie; and Alec, a South African journalist with whom Georgie is besotted. But Jess is also deeply captivated by Alec’s troubling stories and his easy charm, and she guiltily wonders if he feels the same. As the year goes on, the group hurtle towards a tragedy which forces Jess to confront the realities of her idols. The Truants is a story about stories, but in particular, it’s about the reliability of our storytellers. Just how much of what they’re telling us is the truth?
‘Where do I find Crime?’
‘Crime doesn’t have its own section,’ said the librarian
without looking up, ‘it’s all under fiction.’
I’ve been waiting for The Truants since last year when I first read a slither of a summary featured within the acquisition announcement. I even featured it as one of my top five most anticipated releases of 2019, back when I posted those in December. When I finally saw it was available on NetGalley I hit that ‘request’ button so hard. I’d been eagerly waiting to read this since winter 2018, and the wait was worth it. A lot of dark academia novels get compared to The Secret History, but this is the only one I’ve read that lives up to that lofty comparison.
I always enjoy novels that take place in academic settings but this was the first one I’ve read that didn’t feel completely removed from my own life. Weinberg honed her craft at UEA and the unnamed university in The Truants is heavily influenced by her time there. Though I didn’t study at UEA myself, I have visited and I recognise a lot of the places she describes and the atmosphere that coats the campus. The early chapters in which Jess learns to navigate her new environment and starts classes with lecturers whose intellect she’s in awe of felt strongly reminiscent of my own first few months at university. I related to that internal struggle of trying to be true to who you are whilst also embracing an exciting and newly emerging version of yourself.
Jess as a character is particularly well-written; she’s likeable yet realistically flawed. Georgie, too, embodied an interesting role. She’s a little wild and rebellious which when combined with her aristocratic background may initially seem a touch stereotypical (rich girl rebels against her distant parents by developing an out-of-control and expensive drug habit – we’ve seen it before) but there’s more depth to her than that. Her character comes across as real and fresh, and I found myself sympathising with her as well as rooting for her friendship with Jess. Alec and Lorna were captivating; you can understand why Jess was so enamoured with them both. They were fascinating to follow throughout the narrative.
Like the Agatha Christie novels that are referenced a lot throughout the book, I always thought I knew where The Truants was going but it kept surprising me. I think if you’re even a casual fan of Christie’s like me, you’ll enjoy the references and similarities within this book. However, if you’ve never read a Miss Marple or Poirot novel, don’t worry. You might have an urge to pick one up after reading The Truants though. The plot twists and turns and just when you think you’ve got it figured out, a tiny bit of information is revealed that throws the whole narrative into a whole new light. Right up until the very end I was questioning what was true and what wasn’t. Unlike Christie’s novels though, this book doesn’t end nice and tidily, wrapped up in a bow, but that’s not to say the ending isn’t satisfying. We’re given closure on major points of the novel but Weinberg’s leave us with a little room for speculation, which I loved. It means the book has stuck in my head and left me wondering, instead of being neatly packed away, all finished.
I’ve read some brilliant books this month and this was the cherry on the top. A fantastic debut that’s left me eager to read more from Kate Weinberg.
Rating: 5 / 5 stars
*I received a free e-ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.*