The dark side of boarding school has been an alluring topic for decades. Although we tend to think of boarding schools as prestigious, proper places, stories that examine the seedier side of these schools call into question the nature of clans and academia, teachers and students, as well as the influence of sexism, chauvinism and survival.
In Lisa Lutz’s latest novel, The Swallows (Ballantine Books), we know from the start, through the first-person narration of Alex Witt, the new creative writing teacher at Stonebridge Academy, that there are plenty of secrets and many unpleasant truths at this particular school.
The Stonebridge faculty and students alike quickly prove to be thorny and troubling. Alex, with her own murky past, is put to the test by both groups from the moment she arrives.
Alex, in her narration, gives mixed messages: she is strong but vulnerable, open but closed. She also has a tangled relationship with her parents.
The reader might worry that Alex has enough going on in her personal life to know at once that Stonebridge couldn’t possibly be a panacea of any sort. She also has her own past to contend with—and she needs this job. She initially believes that teaching is a noncommital job—one can like it without loving it, without jumping in—and that will suffice. Yet the cocoon that is Stonebridge makes it much too complicated for this sort of mindset as the school is toxic to its core.
It is not only the action at the school, but each character’s voice and pitch that rolls the story forward with confessionals, musings and eventually the big reveal. Then there’s the darkroom, where terrible things have happened and now the entire school has to face the consequences.
Serious issues are front and center in this book: secret-keeping, father/daughter bonds, mother/daughters bonds, male supremacy, the #metoo movement, escape. The most consequential interactions in this novel are those between male and female students, as Lutz candidly depicts what many female students feel and endure.
The writing is clever and urgent, with each character advancing the plot forward. The reader is kept guessing as they examine the complexity of life in a 21st-century boarding school.
One cannot help but be drawn into the vortex of deceit and revenge. There is a sinking sense that at this school, pretending has taken precedence over what is right and honorable.
The Swallows is now available.
About Lisa Lutz
Lisa Lutz is the New York Times bestselling author of ten novels, including The Swallows, The Passenger, How to Start a Fire and the six novels in the Spellman series. Lutz has won the Alex award and has been nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel.