Apollyon by Hilary West did remind me of English public school novels, though it didn't take place at what is defined as a public school in England. The school that the central character attended is a Catholic private school. Like public schools, anyone who can pay the fees can attend regardless of where they reside, but a private school is a profit making institution. Public schools in England are not for profit and are run by a charitable trust, but they are not publicly funded by taxes. They are funded by tuition and by donations to the trust. They are also much more prestigious than private schools. For more on public schools see Wikipedia on English public schools . England also does have schools that are funded by taxes. I thought I should briefly explain the educational landscape of England to my American readers before I begin the review.
The central character's school is known as St. Dominic's and a number of the instructors are known as brothers. So I'd imagine that they belonged to the Dominican order. The way they are portrayed doesn't reflect very well on them as teachers or as Dominicans. They were either complicit in bullying and harassment of students, or they were blind to it. Let me emphasize that this is fiction. I definitely don't mean to imply that the Dominican order is at fault. Please view the video posted by Father Pius Pietrzyk on The Dominican Province of England's Web Page. I believe that English Dominicans should be given the opportunity to speak for themselves about their values and their faith.
It's important to note that this sort of behavior is found in all types of schools. It is not unique to Dominican schools or to Catholic schools in general. In fact, I began by saying that Apollyon resembles English public school novels that I'd read. It also reminded me of my own experiences in private and public American schools.
Bullies always appear to be quite ordinary. I found an article that applies the phrase "the banality of evil" to bullying and harassment. See The School Bus and the Banality of Evil . I think that "the banality of evil" definitely applies to a number of characters in Apollyon.
I know that bullying in schools has recently become a prominent issue in the United States due to the eruption of school shootings that had been precipitated by bullying. There is a national dialogue about awareness of bullying, and how it can be stopped. Yet it wasn't so long ago that bullying was regarded as a rite of passage which young people were expected to endure as a part of growing up. Those who went into the military after graduation would then experience military hazing. I believe that hazing is still considered integral to military training and discipline. As a civilian, I don't pretend to know what is or isn't necessary for the training of military recruits. Yet why would behavior standards in non-military education contexts be at all similar? Institutionalized brutality should not be a common experience for teenagers. Too many teens who successfully survive a brutal school environment grow into brutal adults. Then there is the fact that some students are permanently traumatized. This is a central theme in Apollyon.
A topic of great interest to me that appears briefly in this novel is how history is taught. There is a scene in which Julian, the central character, is bored by the superficiality of his history lesson. The subject of that lesson, Francis Younghusband, is not inherently boring. Teaching what really happened during the Younghusband Expedition to Tibet, and its implications would have been rather challenging and memorable. If schools aren't willing to tackle controversial incidents, few students will have any interest in history.
I like to learn new vocabulary from books as I did from Apollyon. Some readers might prefer a glossary for non-English terms. I enjoyed finding out from Google Translate that mitrailleuse is a machine gun and that St. Dominic's school song, "Uberrima Fides" translates as rich or plentiful faith. I also learned some English vocabulary that was new to me. If I wanted to study how to acquire rich faith, it might be considered "timological" because timology means a study of excellence. I also learned that "xerophagy" has several definitions which include eating dry food, restrictive eating during Holy Week in the Greek Orthodox Church, and a diet of bread and water.
In conclusion, Apollyon is a novel with important themes, a moving story line and many readers will identify with the central character.
In my next blog entry, I will be interviewing Hilary West, the author of Apollyon.