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The Schoolhouse by Sophie Ward review – uneasy history of a betrayed childhood | Fiction

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It would have been a dauntless pundit who gambled on where Sophie Ward would go with her second novel. Her 2020 debut, the Booker-longlisted Love and Other Thought Experiments, took the form of a series of loosely interconnected stories, each one a riff on a well-known philosophical thought experiment such as Pascal’s wager, a bet on the existence of God, or Heraclitus’s river, the idea that change is the only constant. Inventive and ideas-heavy, the novel defied genre, taking in everything from modern relationships to space exploration and AI. One chapter was narrated by a child in the process of being born, another from the point of view of an ant living inside a human character’s brain. While the book divided critics, it established Ward as a literary provocateur, a writer pushing at the bounds of what fiction could do.

Yet her follow-up, The Schoolhouse, is a much more conventional undertaking. The novel takes place over a long December weekend in 1990, and divides its increasingly interwoven narrative between two female protagonists in north London. Isobel is a librarian whose life is carefully and consciously proscribed. Deaf as a result of a childhood accident, she does everything she can to avoid “the intrusion of the outside world”, sticking to strict routines and retreating each evening to the safety of her small upstairs flat, where she keeps the curtains and doors tightly closed. Sally Carter, meanwhile, is a detective sergeant, battling the stultifying hierarchy and institutional sexism of the Metropolitan police. On Friday morning, as the story begins, Carter is assigned to a missing persons case. Ten-year-old Caitlin Thompson has failed to come home after school and her parents are frantic. Meanwhile Isobel, whose schooling concluded abruptly 15 years ago, returns from the library to find a letter from one of her teachers, informing her that her old classmate Jason has been released from prison and is asking if they can meet.

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Sally Carter’s narrative sticks closely to the genre principles of the police procedural, not only in form but in flavour. While Ward’s prose is consistently crisp, the guarded Carter feels all too familiar, the distillation of a hundred cops from books and television shows: scarred by an old failed case, she is a maverick who goes above and beyond, even when it means breaking the rules. There are allusions, never fleshed out, to a difficult childhood – Carter “hadn’t really had a mother for a long time. Possibly ever, she thought, if you considered the act of mothering to be a prerequisite for the title”. Although Ward avoids the loner archetype by giving Carter a girlfriend, a junior member of her team, the relationship gets little page time. The woman behind the surname remains frustratingly opaque.

It is into Isobel – and, in particular, Isobel as a child – that Ward pours her considerable insight and humanity. As her carefully suppressed past threatens to engulf her, Isobel’s adult story is punctuated with entries from her diary from 1975, unspooling the catastrophic series of events that led to her accident with a horrible inevitability. On the brink of adolescence, the young Isobel attends a so-called progressive school, the eponymous Schoolhouse, where the pupils are an all-age-group ragtag of misfits and outcasts, and structured lessons are cast aside in favour of self-expression. Ward has spoken in interviews about her years at an experimental primary school and she paints an unsettlingly vivid portrait of the squalid, chaotic Schoolhouse, its extravagant plans for on-site petting zoos and a giant slide from the top of the building to an outside swimming pool realised only so far as a single classroom and a mangy horse stabled in the playground. Insufficiently supervised, chronically understimulated, routinely shamed by their sadistic headteacher, the children run wild, their apparently carefree existence undercut by violence and fear. For observant, obstinate Isobel, a longtime pupil, it is ordinary life. As events spiral out of her control her journal is an authentic mixture of callousness and conscience, swaggering bravado and sick dread.

As Isobel and Carter’s narratives mesh and the weekend gives way to Monday, The Schoolhouse accelerates towards an improbably overcooked conclusion. It is a pity because, behind the Line of Duty-esque noise and fury, this novel has much to say about childhood and, in particular, the failures by adults in authority to protect the children in their care. As she explores two very different crises in two very different decades, Ward unpicks the damage caused not just by people intent on harm, but those around them who, blinded by idealism, prejudice or laziness, cannot see what is right before their eyes. Her anger is palpable, but so too is her compassion. A child betrayed by the adults in her life may survive, is her fierce message, but the damage lasts a lifetime.

The Schoolhouse by Sophie Ward is published by Little, Brown (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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