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11May

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

Ward follows her inventive debut with a wayward blend of adolescent trauma and police procedural

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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