Book Review: Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

abby jean loaned me this book when I was on one of my desperate ‘I can’t find anything to read! ACK!’ phases. Skippy Dies opens with a harrowing scene in a doughnut bar and then backtracks to tell us how we got there, and what happened next. It starts out as a story about an Irish boarding school, with a plot that expands as the reader is drawn further in; love, relationships, depression, eating disorders, conflicts between secular and religious education, and so much more crop up in its pages.

abby’s Goodreads review says:

…the second half was nonstop greatness. sometimes a bit heavy handed in incorporation of string theory ideas, but overall a very well done and moving story about the randomness and horrors of life and how people react to tragedy.

It’s a pretty accurate summation. The book starts out slowly and it’s a bit unclear how things are going to pull together until the juggernaut that has been set in motion really starts rolling and you sort of pan back and fully understand everything that is going on. There are complicated layers here and none of the characters are particularly likeable, but they are all identifiable. I still want to know what happens with them even as I am sometimes irritated or disgusted by them.

The story is set at a boarding school where a mixture of day boys and boarders attend. It’s ostensibly a religious school, but change is in the air and in addition to hiring secular teachers, it seems the school will inevitably be turned entirely secular. As the school changes, the book comments on larger changes happening in Irish society as well. Much of the story is told from two points of view, a teacher’s and a student’s, and we get very different views of life from both characters.

I’ve never been an adolescent boy, so I don’t know how well the book speaks to that experience, but I was an adolescent once myself and one of the things I thought the book captured well was the sense of immediacy and urgency. Everything is critically important to the characters, even as the adults write off the needs or expressed emotions of the boys. The adults in this book are wrestling with issues of their own; dark pasts, coverups, and other sordid events in their lives.

I liked the language in this book rather a lot; it had a plain, stark note to it without being bland, and occasionally Murray roused himself up into very vivid visual descriptions which really stood out from the text. He also plays with language as he slips through narratives and points of view. The language changes not just depending on the character, but also on the character’s state, until the book becomes a very real reflection of what people are thinking and experiencing at any given point in time. When characters are high and off balance, you feel high and off balance. When they are despondent, so are you. I like an author who can put me into the minds of the characters without being too gimmicky about it, which can be a difficult line to walk.

Various characters experience realisations over the course of the story, and not necessarily at the same time or in the same setting. I’m a big fan of that approach, rather than the opposite, where everyone magically comes together in understanding at the end and everything is perfect. Individual characters miss things, they fail in the end, and they understand pieces of the larger picture at various points in the story. For people who like things to be neatly wrapped up, this book is probably a pass, because there are no tidy resolutions.

It’s also pretty stark in places; there are descriptions of mental illness and self injury and acute misery here. At the same time that the book reminds of us how important everything can feel in adolescence, it also points out that sometimes things feel important because they are important. And it is often the most important things that people suppress, while focusing intently on the errata and minutia, because they have a better grasp and control of those things. The important things get buried until they can be dealt with at another time and place, or you never deal with them, in the case of some characters.

There are lots of things buried in this book; not just physics but popular music, video games, historical commentary, mysticism, and a slew of other nuggets of things that are pretty deftly woven into the story. I would expect a book with this many themes and allusions to fall apart at the end, but instead things pull together in a way that makes logical sense, and doesn’t leave you feeling like the author is trying just a tad too hard to be creative or clever.

One thing that disappointed me is that while the men in this book were complex, fully realised, and very distinctive characters, the women kind of blurred together. There were only two adult women and they were not cast in a very flattering light. Of the teenage girls, they all kind of blended together except for one. This is very much a male-centred story, with women blending together into a kind of amorphous mass. I feel like that’s a stereotype about adolescent boys, that they view all women as the same, and I’m a little sad that Murray reinforced that instead of having the viewers recognise and interact with the girls as differing individuals.

All in all, this was a pretty enjoyable read for me. As abby warns, it does start out slowly. It takes time to build up the plot to the point where it has enough steam to start charging ahead. Be patient with it, and hopefully you won’t be disappointed.