One thing’s for sure: there won’t be another book like Skippy Dies all year. Paul Murray’s second novel (his first in seven years) is a 661-page opus (published as a three-volume box-set) set in an Irish boarding school, largely about the trials and tribulations of growing up and falling in love (both as a teenager and an adult), but also touching on the First World War, theoretical physics, and the changing face of education in the modern world. One other thing – it’s excellent.
The book opens with a doughnut-eating contest between Ruprecht Van Doren – a fourteen-year-old maths prodigy with a weight problem – and his diminutive room-mate, Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster. In accordance with the title, Skippy drops dead during this race – though not from choking on a doughnut. The rest of the novel explores events leading up to, and beyond, the fatal moment.
Skippy Dies interleaves the stories of several characters: there’s Ruprecht, obsessed with the physics of higher dimensions and set on building a machine that could enable travel between universes. There’s Skippy, who has a crush on Lori, a pupil at the neighbouring girls’ school, and can’t believe his luck when his love is returned (if only Carl, the school’s hard-man drug-dealer, didn’t also have his eyes on her). There’s Howard Fallon, the history teacher who falls for a lovely substitute teacher, Aurelie MacIntyre, and is determined to win her love, even if doing so wrecks his existing relationship. And there’s Seabrook College itself, a Catholic school not quite at ease with the changing times.
For all its length, Skippy Dies never once feels like a hard slog, never once feels as though it doesn’t deserve all its 661 pages. But what makes Murray’s achievement in this novel so extraordinary is the sheer range of effects he produces. First of all, and particularly at the beginning, this is a very funny book; the banter between the boys is good, with Murray demonstrating well their tendency to bring even the most serious, high-flown ideas crashing back down to earth with a word. As an example, when Ruprecht describes an invention he’s working on that will broadcast classical music into space in the hope of reaching alien life, another boy replies, ‘What’s the point of playing a load of boring music into space? You want them to think that everyone on Earth is like a hundred years old?’ 
Skippy Dies also has much to say that is serious, and does so very eloquently indeed. For example, points are made around the issue of education: the school’s Acting Principal, Greg Costigan (known to all as ‘the Automator’) is the epitome of the target-driven, commercially-minded headteacher, who doesn’t approve of Howard’s teaching the First World War; it’s not in the textbook, it won’t help the boys pass their exams, so (to Costigan’s way of thinking) it has no value. I don’t think there’s much doubt over where the novel stands on that issue.
Murray succeeds on the level of character, too, where he has some subtle and highly effective touches. One of these is the way he reveals the turmoil of Carl’s home life; the boy’s parents row with each other, but it goes on in the background while we’re following Carl’s viewpoint – and it’s all the more chilling because he completely ignores them.
Also striking is the way that some of the concepts from physics described in the book become mirrored in the emotional events of the story, often leaving some incisive observations behind. For instance, there’s the idea that the smallest possible units of matter act randomly and unknowably; then we learn how Howard (who became a teacher pretty much by accident) attended his school reunion recently, and wondered whether everyone went along in the same fashion: ‘Could the dark truth be that the system is composed of individual units none of whom really knows what he is doing, who emerge from school and slide into the templates offered to them by accident of birth…’  But it’s Ruprecht who gets stung the most by this use of physics, when he comes to realise that the physical laws he puts such trust in just aren’t enough to deal with the human universe.
And I’m only scratching the surface, here, of what Skippy Dies has to offer. It’s a rich, immersive read that you shouldn’t miss.
Penguin Books – interview and extract