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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

New Boy

William Sutcliffe

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To purchase New Boy

Title: New Boy
Author: William Sutcliffe
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996
Length: 200 pages
Availability: New Boy - UK
New Boy - Canada
Der Gott unter der Dusche - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B- : amusing bits, some good ideas, but ultimately too mawkish

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Times Ed. Supp. . 9/8/1996 Geraldine Brennan

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The complete review's Review:

       New Boy is narrated by Mark, a Jewish boy in an English public (i.e. private) school where there are few Christians or other public school types left. His world is turned upside down when a new boy, Barry, joins the school. Barry attracts a lot of attention -- Mark's, especially.
       Sex is, of course, on all the boys' minds, an obsession that dominates most of their waking lives. Sutcliffe does a good job of conveying the charged sexual atmosphere at the school and all the still-boyish confusion running riot there. Mark's narration -- easy-going, self-deprecating, trying to display a self-confident front (yet knowing -- and often admitting -- how pathetic he really is) -- makes him appear a not quite typical but certainly convincing teenage figure.
       Mark's ambiguous attraction to Barry worries him too. He's certain that he is heterosexual, but acknowledges that things aren't entirely as clear-cut as he'd like:

So you can see how in an all-boys' school, at an age when one's pubes still have that freshly grown sheen, it isn't easy to gauge which team you bat for. If no one is having any sex, and 90 per cent of the school population regularly indulge in mutual humping, it becomes very difficult to tell what is normal. This is why, despite the fact that odd things were happening with regard to Barry, I still felt pretty sure that I was a solid mid-to-low-order batsman for the hetties.
       Mark convinces himself that having Barry as an ally would be useful ("Let's face it -- Barry was sex on legs. And I ... well, I wasn't"), and he befriends him and then convinces Barry that any girl would be thrilled to throw herself at him -- as indeed they would. Barry conquers the female sex, and Mark gets something of a vicarious thrill, a glimpse of possibilities (even though they seem impossibly distant to him). But Mark's focus, all the while, remains on Barry, which continues to worry him.        
       Sutcliffe is at his best in the school-scenes, describing the cliques and characters, the oppressively sex-drenched atmosphere, and the absolute horror that is schoolboy life. There's some very good comedic writing here, especially in Mark's reluctance to relate events straightforwardly. The preferred version of events is the one that's been twisted into outlandish school legend, rather than the often more banal truth (but Mark clevely also generally also reveals what actually (or probably) happened). Schoolboy cruelty is also nicely presented here, as simply a given -- and one to be revelled in --, the ruined lives something that just happens and can't be helped. (The exposure of a teacher as a child molester who took advantage of his favourite students, taking them for "sailing holidays" is the kind of thing that Mark calls: "an absolute joy -- the kind of thing that makes attending school worthwhile" -- despite (or in part: because of) the fact that the boy who came forward (having captured the teacher's desires on tape, which he played to other students, in the hope of winning some friends) "was ruthlessly tormented as a homosexual for the rest of his school career, and left before the sixth form".)
       Things go awry when Sutcliffe tries for broader comedic effect. Mark and Barry decide schoolgirls aren't enough of a challenge for Barry after a while, and he goes after the one teacher who isn't too ugly. She's married, but that's not a problem, and Barry and her wind up moving in together (and getting kicked out of school). Mark can nevertheless convince his friend to go Inter-railing in Europe for a month over summer break -- making for a terribly boring and poorly done traveller-tale intermezzo (a practise-run for Sutcliffe's more ambitious (though not much better) Are you Experienced ?).
       Further complications ensue from sibling interests: there's Mark's brother Dan, who has something he's been wanting to tell the family, but can't quite get around to, and then there's Barry's sister, Louise, with whom Mark eventually has a very physical relationship. Mark doesn't always want to see the obvious -- so, for example, regarding what Dan's little secret is (which is soon obvious to the reader -- suggesting that, at least on some level Mark too realises it, but just isn't willing to admit it to himself). Then comes a bombshell regarding Barry's sexual interests, and Mark has an even tougher time dealing with that (as his own interest in Barry suggests his leanings might also be in a direction he prefers not to even consider).
       By the end Sutcliffe's comedic gifts have completely failed him. Mark's unease is simply too great for him to handle the revelations (and ponder the consequences) with the humour he had previously displayed, though that is the only way (in a book like this) they could be handled. Sutcliffe backs off: the daring approach for much of the book, when nothing was sacred, suddenly scares him, and the stabs at humour he offers are forced and blunt-edged.
       Mark's reaction and the events of the book's last section may be realistic, but the presentation does not convince. Mark wasn't a charming narrator, but he was believable in his confusion and desperation; in the last section of the book he isn't.
       Sutcliffe tries to liven up the book with too many extraneous events -- the Europe tour, Mark's job, and Barry and the teacher's domestic life, in particular -- instead of just focussing on what he does best. Sutcliffe is very good at describing Mark's schoolboy life: through all the exaggeration and distortions, most of these descriptions ring true. Mark's sexual confusion (and he's confused about pretty much all aspects of it) is also well done. But once Nice Boy becomes a moral tale, with Mark's insufferable brother spouting wise words, it is nearly unbearable.
       Sutcliffe has a decent comedic touch, but he isn't able to use it for the length of an entire novel to tell a compelling story. The book is a quick read, and funny enough at the beginning to justify wasting an hour or two on, but it is ultimately something of a disappointment.

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New Boy: Reviews: William Sutcliffe:
  • William Sutcliffe in the (African) Sunday Times on backpacking.
Other books by William Sutcliffe under review: Other books under review that might be of interest:
  • See the Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author William Sutcliffe was born in 1971.

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© 2003-2010 the complete review

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