I received an Uncorrected Proof of this novel. All opinions are my own.
The Truants is the kind of book you keep thinking about for days afterward. The kind of book where you get to the end and you find your mind casting over the chapters, second guessing who all of the characters were and what precisely were their motivations.
Jess is a fresh young university student who has arranged all her post-secondary plans around one book. Lorna Clay wrote a literary criticism book called The Truants and after Jess reads this book she immediately applies to the university where Lorna teaches. She ends up in Lorna’s class focusing on the work of Agatha Christie. At the same time, Jess falls deeply into friendship with her fellow classmate Georgie. Georgia is wealthy and vivacious, daring and erratic. Everything that Jess is not but the intensity of their friendship is clear right off the bat. Here Weinberg does a great job at capturing those heady, early days of university life when every relationship seems to turn into a deep one immediately, regardless of difference or consequence.
Jess also meets Georgie’s new boyfriend, Alec. Alec is in his mid-twenties, a South African journalist, escaping a complicated past. Jess is immediately drawn to him but holds back because of Georgie’s obvious love. Instead Jess begins to date Nick who is funny and practical and almost entirely normal. The four become a group, spending all their time together. With Lorna as her advisor, Jess grows even closer to her idol, despite a few ominous warning along the way. Jess is happier than she’s ever been, finally finding the life and passion she’s always dreamed of with friends like she’s never had before. But with Georgie’s unstable personality and the attraction simmering between Jess and Alec, it seems inevitable that things fall apart. And when they do, Jess turns to Lorna.
There are things here you could question – why is no one questioning Lorna’ involvement in her students’ lives? Why is Alec, who is not a student, hanging around with a bunch of eighteen-year-olds? Why doesn’t Nick, who seems normal and uncomplicated, find some better friends? But honestly, I don’t care. I was absorbed enough in these characters and their story that the questions didn’t really matter. They’re all just unusual enough that I was willing to accept these eccentricities and wait for the story to explain it to me.
Which brings me to another strength of the novel – the character of Jess. So often in novels like this the main character and narrator is a sort of formless character who exists simply to tell the story and to observe the others. Jess is certainly more average than Georgie or Alec but she is fascinating to watch and is slowly revealed to have more complexity to her than you might think. She doesn’t simply follow along with the others but has her own thoughts and agency and makes decisions that affect her own life. Is she a victim of manipulation? Maybe but I think she bears some guilt too.
The book doesn’t exactly have a twist but there are a couple of important reveals along the way. Neither were that surprising to me and with both I was left to feel like the entire truth had not been revealed either to Jess or to the reader. And, of course, do we trust the story that Jess herself is telling us?
It’s easy to be reminded of books like The Secret History but I think The Truants has a lot of merit on its own and is really an entirely unique story, despite how many campus novels are out there. If you’ve fallen headlong in love or been swept away by a gregarious new friend, I think you’ll find a lot to sympathize and enjoy in this book.