Book Review: A Separate Peace by John Knowles

A Separate Peace - John Knowles (Bantam Books, 1988)
A Separate Peace – John Knowles (Bantam Books, 1988)

A Separate Peace is one of the more unusual books about World War II that I’ve ever read. Set in 1942, it begins in the summer term at Devon, an upscale boys’ prep school in New England. Our narrator is Gene Forrester. Quiet, smart, a little awkward. Summer term at Devon is a lull in their normal lives; with only a few staff and students present, things happen that wouldn’t normally occur. Some rules are a little looser. Partially, this is due to the presence of Gene’s best friend, Phineas. Phineas – or Finny – is charming, charismatic, with a loose confidence that seems to make everything in his life fall perfectly into place. Until one, terrible thing doesn’t and both Gene and Phineas are changed forever.

The terrible event – alluded to early on by our narrator, an adult Gene – is easy to see coming. Gene’s role in it, however, feels both surprising and inevitable. The whole novel has that sort of momentum. I was surprised when things happened and yet it seemed that the book had been leading in that direction in such a way that nothing else could possibly happen.

It is the setting in time of this story that makes it unique and gives it it’s particular poignancy. Halfway through the war, Gene and his classmates know that they are moving forward into battle. Sixteen and seventeen, enlistment or the draft are all their future holds for certain. Even their education has morphed to prepare them for their role in the war. Yet, for now, they have a reprieve. They can pretend for a little longer that the war doesn’t exist. They are safe for a little longer. Until, as the novel progresses, the war creeps closer and these young men begin to catch darker and darker glimpses of what may be to come.

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