/ 26 November 2008

Is it true and how did they get that way?

Jane Rosenthal reviews <i>The Club</i> by Edyth Bulbring.

I realised Edyth Bulbring is a person to be reckoned with when she used an innocent interview question about her favourite reader to launch into a Farmer’s Weekly Hitching Post ad for a mate for her mamma — but her novel, though entertaining in places, is not nearly as much fun.

In fact it is not fun at all. Though set in a highly physi­cally recognisable (to ex and current pupils and parents) Johannesburg school, it cannot actually be any particular school as the goings-on described might result in serious legal action being taken.

The protagonist, Mammuso, is in Grade 11 and has a younger brother whom she adores and protects when she can. But she has been pretty traumatised by the sudden death of her mother and is an alienated but wealthy teenager living in an upmarket suburb with her grandfather and (mostly absent) father.

The school is run by a gang of truly scary kids who sell drugs, do blackmail and extortion, and corrupt everything from cricket matches to matric exam papers. Mammuso is one of them. They are clever, full of bad attitude and care only for power, being cool and, especially, money.

Most of the adults who deal with these kids are out of their depth, their values centred on religious precepts, academic and sporting excellence. A new teacher arrives who offers considerably more suss and grit. Bulbring’s portraits of teachers and parents are amusingly apt, sometimes deliciously tart. She describes one old boy parent’s Mercedes as “old and battered and stinking of people who whine about the demise of the dessert trolley at the Rand Club”.

The level of sexual candour evinced by the pupils is probably spot on, and the language foul enough to curdle the little darlings from within, but it is the ruthless bullying that is really shocking. They seem to cultivate an indifference to the suffering of others, which makes them seem like androids.

This depressing but salutory wake-up call to teachers and parents and the whole community is kept afloat by the character of Jacob, the 12-year-old brother. Irrepressible, clever, full of mad ideas and games, it’s easy to understand why Mammuso loves him so much. But he is the most vulnerable person in the book.

This is an absorbing read and hugely challenging. It’s not the kids that are most shocking, but the question one is forced to ask: how did they get that way? And most readers will also ask, could it possibly be true?