In a follow-up to the Booker Prize-nominated “Love and Other Experiments,” actress Sophie Ward has forsaken literary philosophy for a traditional thriller. In 1990 North London, Isobel lives a quiet life, working at a library. She is deaf due to a childhood accident that is implied to be related to the untraditional, government-funded school she attended in the mid-1970s. During an ordinary day at work, Isobel notices two school-aged girls “with the floury faces and shadowed eyes of city children in winter.” Upon seeing a newspaper a few days later, she realizes that one of the girls is now missing, an event that triggers repressed memories from her school days.
Isobel receives a letter from a former schoolteacher, telling her that a “Jason” has been released from prison, an event that leads to considerable stress. In alternating chapters, we are also given glimpses at Isobel’s diary from when she is eleven years old and of Sergeant Sally Carter’s investigation of the missing child case. Like Isobel, Carter also carries her own pain from a missing child case, early in her career. Though we know that Isobel herself cannot be the missing child, who was found and died just six months later, the case appears to be connected with her and her school experiences.
At its best, “The Schoolhouse” has the cinematic feel of crime drama, and much of the intrigue comes from seeing how the different storylines come together. The school of the title is by far the most intriguing aspect of the novel, and its enigmatic nature and role in Isobel’s trauma hangs over the novel. An incident described early in Isobel’s diary hints at a more sinister side of the progressive school, which includes many “handicapped” children and does not emphasize traditional classroom learning. A boy in a wheelchair named Christopher is asked by the headmaster to walk in front of the whole school. Supposedly, Christopher has been practicing, but he soon falls over and “[the headmaster] started clapping ever harder. No one was allowed to help Christopher get back in his wheelchair.” The cost of too much freedom and the ambiguous nature of the adults who work there are drawn well by Ward, who attended a similar school in her own childhood.
While not initially as heavily plot-driven, Isobel’s story is more well-drawn than Sergeant Carter’s, though some readers may find her early sections slow and her childish diary frustrating. Carter’s character feels much less developed in comparison, and the most interesting parts in her section are revelations about Isobel. The two storylines never completely feel like parts of a whole, and the climax of Carter’s story is overshadowed by the climax of Isobel’s. Some of the most intriguing sections appear in the past, not the present, and though the novel’s villain is intriguing in the descriptions in Isobel’s diary, he feels overwrought and two-dimensional when we encounter him in 1990.
Still, “The Schoolhouse” has all the intrigue and suspense one could hope for in a thriller, and the final third is as heart-racing and titillating as one could desire. The portrait of trauma and setting make this a read that is difficult to put down, even for readers who do not normally gravitate toward thrillers.
By Sophie Ward
Vintage, 304 pages
Mara Sandroff is a fiction writer, critic and essayist based in Brooklyn, New York and Tucson, Arizona. She recently earned an MFA in fiction from New York University, and she is an alumna of One Story’s 2019 Summer Writers Conference and Kenyon Review’s 2021 Writers Workshop, a 2021 finalist in Tucson Festival of Book’s Literary Awards, and a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in the Emerging Writer Series of Roxane Gay’s The Audacity. Currently, she is working on a novel that explores Jewish identity, intergenerational storytelling, and a young girl’s coming-of-age in a world that is (possibly) coming to an end. Write On, Door County will support her novel with a residency in December 2023. Find her online at marasandroff.com.