In a deceptive start to this novel, translated from German, there is beautiful lyrical writing where young Hans Stickler lives idyllically in a forest in Lower Saxony with his parents. However, the narrative takes a sudden and more dramatic turn, after their tragic deaths when Hans is only fifteen. From here on in the writing becomes rather stilted as if Würger cannot make up his mind whether he is attempting a coming-of-age novel or a contemporary thriller.
Hans is sent by his English-residing aunt Alex to a Catholic boarding school. There the timid boy is trained by a monk to box to defend himself against school bullies. This is not exactly an original trope in fiction, but in this debut novel it is handled well by Würger, who is an experienced boxer himself as well as being a journalist with the German magazine Der Spiegel.
After finishing boarding school, Hans is offered a place in Cambridge University through the machinations of his aunt, a lecturer in Art at the university, on the condition that he infiltrate and expose the goings-on in the Pitt club. This is a dining club exclusive to males whose members past and present are part of the English Establishment. Females are invited only on the basis of their looks, and their drinks are reportedly spiked. It is interesting to note Würger himself attended Cambridge University for a while before dropping out and was a member of the Pitt Club which actually exists.
Hans, feeling friendless and lonely and ‘dreaming of belonging somewhere’, accepts his aunt’s offer. She falsifies his name and assigns him a trumped up bio. But Hans soon feels out of place among fellow students with superior airs and sense of entitlement. The aunt introduces him to one of her students, the beautiful and enigmatic Charlotte Farewell and they soon become an item. Through the intercession of Charlotte’s father Sir Angus, a powerful financier and former member of the Pitt club, Hans is nominated and accepted into the group.
When they discover his boxing skills, Hans is lionised by the club members and is asked to box for Cambridge against old rival Oxford. On wining his match, he is invited to join a secret sect within the Pitt Club known as the Butterflies.
When Hans witnesses Josh, a Butterfly with psychopathic tendencies, take away a drugged ‘golden girl’ from a dinner party, he does not intervene. Instead he hides in a toilet and only after the violation does he act. With the aid of Charlotte, he collects the names of the Butterflies, including that of her father and Hans’ own false name.
When the story of the Butterflies is published in a British newspaper, Angus Farewell knows the game is up. Realising the shame hanging over his own life and anxious to exact revenge for the violation of his daughter, he takes the inevitable and predictable course of action.
While the book is short and easy to read, myriad characters jump in and out of the narrative addressing the reader in monologues. Some of these characters are mere caricatures, sketchily delineated and make the story disjointed.
Also at times, the plot feels agenda-driven and purposefully topical within the remit of the Me Too movement. Charlotte appears as a prototype of a strong woman who survives abuse, and the depressed aunt Alex, who suffered at the hands of Angus many years ago, and in seeking revenge through her nephew, wants her abuser ‘to feel what I had felt. The feeling of being an object… It should feel what it meant no longer to have any control over your own life.’
Published in the Irish Examiner, 28/12/19