It is never fair to finish up a book you liked a lot/loved (in this case, The Secret History — despite my best intentions of early bed, I stayed up past until midnight to finish it this past rereading time), and turn straight away to a book you haven’t read before that sounds vaguely similar. You’re going to compare them, and even though your rational mind knows that they are not in competition, one of them is going to lose out.
However, there were a few things working to shield The White Devil from the inevitable failure when compared to The Secret History. One, it is packed full of story elements I love: boarding schools, ghosts in the basement, forbidden love, secrets about famous people, high-stakes academic research, people in plays…All that stuff, just by existing, tends to make me feel fonder of any book. Two, before I finished The White Devil I read something somewhere where Justin Evans mentioned that it has some superficial similarities to Arcadia. In general, comparisons of other books/plays to Arcadia does not work in the other books’ favor. Arcadia is pretty nearly perfect, and oh, did I mention? I SAW IT ON THE STAGE! But in this case, it helped. The White Devil is nothing like Arcadia at all, so when I said to myself “You, sir, are no Arcadia,” it wasn’t the biting criticism it would have been if I’d been saying to myself — as I was at the outset far more likely to say — “You, sir, are no The Secret History.” Because it’s not trying to be Arcadia at all, it’s nothing like Arcadia. (It’s not trying to be The Secret History either, but the comparison to Arcadia prevented me from lining it up against The Secret History and making mean comparisons.)
Andrew Taylor has come to Britain after being expelled from his school in America for drug use. His father has moved heaven and earth to get him into Harrow (Harrow!), where his resemblance to a young Byron quickly leads to his being cast in a play about Byron the school is putting on. The play is to be written by poet and housemaster Piers Fawkes who is hoping that the publication of the play will revive his flagging career. But Andrew has begun seeing things, the ghost of a young man apparently intent on murder, shades of Harrow students from the past.
If I had to say one problem I had with the book, I would skip mentioning the abundance of weird, Rowlingesque “said” alternatives that peppered the pages, and focus on the overabundance of plot elements. (See what I did there? Mentioning the “said” problem by saying I wasn’t going to mention it? That’s called praeteritio and I learned it from Cicero.) The White Devil has a lot going on. There’s the play. There’s Fawkes and his career and his drinking. There’s a stern lady archivist who can help with research. There’s the ghost, and there’s Andrew’s mild concerns that he might be gay, and there’s a budding romance with the headmaster’s daughter, and there’s a Speech that Andrew’s going to give on Speech Day, and there’s backstory relating to Byron that we gradually discover. It’s a lot to deal with, and the overall effect is that no one of the plot elements feels fully realized.
So yes, I would say the book had more plot than it was able to handle, and the ending necessarily felt a little bit forced. But I’d always rather have too much plot than not enough, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading The White Devil. I love books where academic pursuits have high stakes (find out the truth about Byron or everyone will die). It makes me feel less dorky. I stayed up late to finish The White Devil. It was the exact reading experience I wanted after The Secret History: fast-paced, a bit silly (but no less enjoyable for that), and totally boardingschooly.
Something about Justin Evans: His other book is A Good and Happy Child. I had heard of this book but it had fused in my head with Beautiful Boy, a memoir about the author’s son’s drug addiction. I was reading The White Devil and thinking, Wow, this is a strange follow-up to a memoir about your son’s drug addiction. After a while I just couldn’t believe how strange a follow-up it was to a memoir like that, so I went on the internet and looked it up and yeah, no, A Good and Happy Child is about a kid whose father is a demonologist and the father dies and the kid is possessed or something. Sounds fun! Beautiful Boy still sounds depressing.
I received The White Devil for review from Harper. It will be published in May 2011.