A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace   by John Knowles

This novel is described on its cover as ‘An American Classic’, and was ‘… part of the syllabus of high-school English classes throughout the United States…’

Perhaps US readers of this will be all too familiar with this book and may therefore need no reminders. But it may be that some of you are from climes beyond the shores of the land of Uncle Sam. Therefore, I will endeavour to provide you with an introduction to A Separate Peace.

Gene Forrester is a 16 years old student at a posh New England school in the 1940’s. His best friend is the inimitable Phineas, known as Finny to his peers. I was struck that anyone should call their child Phineas. His parents must have really resented his arrival. Perhaps they should have been more considerate, and called him Sue.

Anyhow, A Separate Peace revolves around the relationship between the two boys, a relationship that falls victim to the vagaries of the teenage mind. Over-shadowing their schooldays is the Second World War, a conflict that looms solidly over every major decision the boys make.

Teenagers can be fickle. I know this because I once was one – that’s not today or yesterday – and the plot deals with the angst and general emotional turbulence that is part and parcel of being a teenager. The transition from child to adult is rarely simple for anyone, and the characters in A Separate Peace demonstrate this perfectly.

In one typical moment of teenage impetuosity, everything changes for both Gene and Finny. The consequences are intricate and far-reaching. To be honest, when I first started reading A Separate Peace, I thought of The Catcher in the Rye, and given that I had just finished novels that contained zombies, alternate universes, vampire cults and hillbilly serial killers, I felt that yet another story set in a preppy New England school would be as dull as dishwater. It wasn’t.

Although it does not have the pace of a Joe R. Lansdale piece of art, A Separate Peace is a thoughtful and thought-provoking gem that has aged well, considering that it was published in 1959. I suppose that’s why it’s a classic.

Anyone interested in reading A Separate Peace should prepare to stop reading this review as I’m going to discuss something that is a major spoiler. However, before you go, let me tell you that this novel is well worth the time. It’s not long and is a pleasant change of pace from the more standard thriller that can be found in abundance today. Off with you now and enjoy the book if you decide to try it.

OK, now that we’ve gotten rid of them, can I just say, what the holy humpin’ fuck is going on with the author John Knowles? That sick fuck killed Finny. Knowles has to be one of the most vicious literary bastards I have yet encountered. Can anyone, anyone, tell me why the hell Finny had to die? And in such a mundane and inconsistent manner?

I have to admit that I did not see it coming. I had developed a strong admiration for the mischievous and eminently likeable Phineas, and he was clearly the most decent person in the entire story. When his death was announced, and in such an off-hand way, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. To provoke such a reaction in a reader is a sign, for me, of a good writer. Yet I still question the author’s decision in killing Finny. I cannot understand what benefit the death brought to the story. It seems to be a sadistic decision by Knowles, and I wonder if he has ever explained his reasoning?

Upon hearing of Finny’s demise, Gene states, ‘I felt an extremely cold chill along my back and neck, that was all.’ He continues, ‘I did not cry then or ever about Finny. I did not cry even when I stood watching him being lowered into his family’s strait-laced burial ground outside of Boston. I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case.’

I find it incredible that someone as emotional as Gene would shed no tears about the death of his best friend and the indirect involvement that he had in it. It might be that Gene was borderline sociopathic, as children can sometimes be before they mature and learn social rights and wrongs. Yet Gene demonstrates guilt at his part in Finny’s broken leg. He feels sympathy for his hapless schoolmate, Leper, although is extremely callous in the scene set at Leper’s home. Gene is therefore a typical teenager and his lack of grief is unusual.

Is Knowles suggesting that when Finny died, so too did an integral piece of Gene, numbing him to loss? Or was Gene simply recognising that there is a corrupted part that lies within himself, making him immune to such normal emotions as grief?

Fuck Knowles for killing Finny. I felt so bad about it that I had to wait a day or two before writing this review. The author could have let him live and the conclusion would not have differed greatly. But then again, perhaps John Knowles was, in killing Finny, making a statement about his own sadistic tendencies, either past, present or both. It might be that he was just having a pisser of a day and needed to vent. Poor Finny (yes I know he’s fictional, but if he can be imagined, then does he exist in an alternative universe? (that’s a head-wrecker if you think about it…)) got knocked off but, in doing so, he might have spared the neighbour’s dog from being kicked or shot. Placed in that context, Finny can be viewed as a martyr who was sacrificed to save an animal or person from the author’s petulant wrath. Way to go, Finny.

Sult scale rating: 8.0 out of 10. Recommended.