Why would a teacher walk into an assembly at his school carrying a gun, and open fire? That’s the central question examined in Simon Lelic’s first novel, Rupture. Detective Inspector Lucia May of the Metropolitan Police has been heading the investigation into the shooting perpetrated by Samuel Szajkowski, an apparently nondescript young history teacher. Her superiors would like to think it’s an open-and-shut case, but Lucia’s investigations have painted a picture of Samuel as a man who was out of his depth, bullied by colleagues and pupils alike, and desperately looking for (and failing to find) somewhere to turn. Is it time for Lucia to stand up and declare the teacher as much a ‘victim’ as any of those he killed, even if doing so would threaten her own livelihood?
Lelic has chosen a distinctive structure for his novel, alternating first-person interview transcripts with third-person accounts of Lucia’s travails in the book’s present. What’s more, each of the interviews is with a different character. It’s a tricky feat to juggle all this, but Lelic pulls it off: his interviewees’ voices are all distinctive, and the narrative voice of the third-person chapters is different again.
The author also makes some nicely subtle observations of his characters; it’s often the incidental asides which are particularly revealing. For example, here’s Mr Travis, the school’s headteacher, talking to Lucia and showing just how dismissive he is:
You would not have attended university, I assume?
Well, I stand corrected. And what, pray tell, did you read? No, don’t tell me. It is clear from your expression. [NB. Travis has just rubbished the teaching of history.] And in a way, my dear, you are a case in point. Where has your history degree got you if not further back than where you began? You are, how old? Thirty.
Thirty-two, then. If you had joined the police force when you were sixteen you might be a chief inspector by now. Superintendent.
It’s not just Travis’s assumption that Lucia didn’t go to university which turns one against him, but also his patronising suggestion that she might have been better off without her education, and the implication that to have attained the rank of DI by the age of 32 is not in itself a mark of success. Smartly written, I think.
Lelic is a perceptive writer in other ways, too: with quite considerable economy, he shows how some of the pupils have been moulded by their circumstances, and how Lucia feels adrift now that she’s no longer one of ‘the younger generation’, even though she’s still far from old. And the author is good with description, as when he depicts Lucia’s impersonal flat (‘the box that she still could not think of as home’), whose unwelcoming atmosphere reflects her own sense of uncertainty.
One of the striking things about Lelic’s characterisation is that we don’t learn much more than the bare bones of Lucia’s life outside the immediate sphere of the tale, and even less about her work colleagues’. This can make some characters seem rather two-dimensional (so, for example, the defining characteristics of Lucia’s fellow-detective Walter are his sexism and lechery); but Lelic would seem too skilled a writer in other areas for this not to be deliberate. What I think he’s trying to do is make us meet Lucia on the same terms as she meets people in her working life – that is, she has to make judgements about people based on relatively brief impressions. This would fit in with the parallels Lelic is apparently trying to draw between Samuel and Lucia (e.g. both are bullied, and both frustrated by the lack of support at work). As I say, I don’t think the strategy entirely succeeds; but it does help tighten the focus of the novel, which is quite effective.
But the thing that niggles me most about Rupture is that, even though the novel deals with a complex moral problem, I think Lelic makes it all a bit too easy for us to decide what’s right == too easy to decide that Samuel was not a monster, but a fundamentally decent man who was treated appallingly until he snapped, with tragic consequences; too easy to side with Lucia, because the characters with opposing opinions are so loathsome. I can’t help feeling that Lelic undermines his novel somewhat by beginning with the suggestion that matters were not as straightforward as they appeared, then offering an alternative view that’s so morally clear-cut.
Rupture is a novel that works on several levels. Though not primarily intended as a detection, it serves as one well enough (we duly discover at the end that there was more going on than had met the eye up to that point). Mainly, though, it’s a pretty successful character study and examination of how institutions might fail people whom they have a duty to help. Despite its flaws, Rupture is a fine debut, and I look forward to following Lelic’s writing career in the future.