It is never fair to finish up a book you liked a lot/loved (in this case, The Secret History — despite my best intentions of early bed, I stayed up past until midnight to finish it this past rereading time), and turn straight away to a book you haven’t read before that sounds vaguely similar. You’re going to compare them, and even though your rational mind knows that they are not in competition, one of them is going to lose out.
However, there were a few things working to shield The White Devil from the inevitable failure when compared to The Secret History. One, it is packed full of story elements I love: boarding schools, ghosts in the basement, forbidden love, secrets about famous people, high-stakes academic research, people in plays…All that stuff, just by existing, tends to make me feel fonder of any book. Two, before I finished The White Devil I read something somewhere where Justin Evans mentioned that it has some superficial similarities to Arcadia. In general, comparisons of other books/plays to Arcadia does not work in the other books’ favor. Arcadia is pretty nearly perfect, and oh, did I mention? I SAW IT ON THE STAGE! But in this case, it helped. The White Devil is nothing like Arcadia at all, so when I said to myself “You, sir, are no Arcadia,” it wasn’t the biting criticism it would have been if I’d been saying to myself — as I was at the outset far more likely to say — “You, sir, are no The Secret History.” Because it’s not trying to be Arcadia at all, it’s nothing like Arcadia. (It’s not trying to be The Secret History either, but the comparison to Arcadia prevented me from lining it up against The Secret History and making mean comparisons.)
Andrew Taylor has come to Britain after being expelled from his school in America for drug use. His father has moved heaven and earth to get him into Harrow (Harrow!), where his resemblance to a young Byron quickly leads to his being cast in a play about Byron the school is putting on. The play is to be written by poet and housemaster Piers Fawkes who is hoping that the publication of the play will revive his flagging career. But Andrew has begun seeing things, the ghost of a young man apparently intent on murder, shades of Harrow students from the past.
If I had to say one problem I had with the book, I would skip mentioning the abundance of weird, Rowlingesque “said” alternatives that peppered the pages, and focus on the overabundance of plot elements. (See what I did there? Mentioning the “said” problem by saying I wasn’t going to mention it? That’s called praeteritio and I learned it from Cicero.) The White Devil has a lot going on. There’s the play. There’s Fawkes and his career and his drinking. There’s a stern lady archivist who can help with research. There’s the ghost, and there’s Andrew’s mild concerns that he might be gay, and there’s a budding romance with the headmaster’s daughter, and there’s a Speech that Andrew’s going to give on Speech Day, and there’s backstory relating to Byron that we gradually discover. It’s a lot to deal with, and the overall effect is that no one of the plot elements feels fully realized.
So yes, I would say the book had more plot than it was able to handle, and the ending necessarily felt a little bit forced. But I’d always rather have too much plot than not enough, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading The White Devil. I love books where academic pursuits have high stakes (find out the truth about Byron or everyone will die). It makes me feel less dorky. I stayed up late to finish The White Devil. It was the exact reading experience I wanted after The Secret History: fast-paced, a bit silly (but no less enjoyable for that), and totally boardingschooly.
Something about Justin Evans: His other book is A Good and Happy Child. I had heard of this book but it had fused in my head with Beautiful Boy, a memoir about the author’s son’s drug addiction. I was reading The White Devil and thinking, Wow, this is a strange follow-up to a memoir about your son’s drug addiction. After a while I just couldn’t believe how strange a follow-up it was to a memoir like that, so I went on the internet and looked it up and yeah, no, A Good and Happy Child is about a kid whose father is a demonologist and the father dies and the kid is possessed or something. Sounds fun! Beautiful Boy still sounds depressing.
I received The White Devil for review from Harper. It will be published in May 2011.
Interesting that there’s been any comparison made between this and Arcadia, because both have been mentioned recently on my blog. I reviewed Don Juan and then CB James mentioned Arcadia to me as being vaguely related to Byron, since I was very interested in Byron, and then I reviewed The White Devil a few days later. I wonder if the comparison is solely about the fact that Byron plays a part in both books.
I really liked The White Devil, though it had its really disgusting moments. It’s one of the only books I’ve read this year that I’ve kept on my shelves afterwards.
I think that yes, the connection is primarily a Byron one. Apparently (though I wouldn’t have noticed if Justin Evans hadn’t mentioned it), the characters in The White Devil reference the same Byron poem that gets recited in Arcadia. It’s not a really deep connection.
I had been considering reviewing this book, but for some unknown reason, held back. I am not sure all the tangled plot elements would work for me, but I do have to admit that it sounds sort of interesting. I can see that it’s no Secret History, but I might have to reconsider on this one. It may prove to be a good read. Thanks for sharing your ever entertaining thoughts on this book with us!
There are anyway a LOT of plot elements. You will never be bored. I can guarantee that. 🙂
I agree that sometimes it’s nice to find books which contain an abbundance of good things (I think most book whcih involve Byron somehow go on my list, because he was moody, tragic and passionate, which are some of my favourite things for people I don’t have to deal with every day to be). It’s just such a shame when those things are almost competing to be the brightest star in the book, when maybe they should have turned up in several different books, or just been worked together in a more delicate way.
>>>he was moody, tragic and passionate, which are some of my favourite things for people I don’t have to deal with every day to be.
I laughed out loud when I read this. I feel this exact way about so many people, from Byron to Sylvia Plath. I love reading about them, but God, can you imagine if they were your sibling? (Or, well, yes, Byron’s sibling was apparently happy about it, but, ew.)
I’m with you in thinking that too much happening is better than too little happening, in a good 8 out of 10 cases (of course sometimes the writing is gorgeous enough to cope with nothing going on, but that is kind of rare). And I love the elements of this – Byron! boarding schools! student drama! But I’m worried about the disgusting bits Amanda mentions – are they really disgusting?
Or if there are good jokes. I loved Joan Wyndham’s London in wartime diaries, because she was so damn funny, and because there was an edge of real tragedy to it, even though there wasn’t a plot, per se. I’d up your figure to nine out of ten.
Ummmm, there are some slightly gross things. I wouldn’t have used the adjective “disgusting”, but the book was all gothicky, so that gives me a bit of distance on the gross stuff. So I don’t know.
Disgusting bits? SOUNDS INTRIGUING.
She means, like, coughy, germy, tuberculosis disgusting. Not Melrose Place disgusting.
Oh! You’ve made my day! I’ve been *waiting* and *waiting* for Justin Evans to write another book. I afraid A Good and Happy Child was going to be one of those, “Well, I’ve written my novel, now I’ll go back to my real career” books.
Apparently not! Do you want me to send you my copy? It’s only an ARC but you could read it and it would be free. 🙂
I would love that! I have never advance-read a book before!
Interesting! However, ‘The White Devil’ makes me think of Webster, not Byron (or, possibly, the Duchess of Caprona in DWJ’s ‘The Magicians of Caprona’).
And what does Andrew’s father do that he can get his son into Harrow at no notice?
fast-paced, a bit silly (but no less enjoyable for that), and totally boardingschooly.
…aaaand I’m sold. Thanks for the review; I’m off to my wishlist!
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I waited to read this review until I read the book (finished last night) and I fully agree with you. I thought there was a bit too much going on (too many coincidences and stuff) and the pacing was slightly jerky and yet I still liked it.
Strange coincidence, I ALMOST finally picked up The Secret History right after it. But then I decided I needed something without secrets or history. 😉 The White Devil is quite full of both and was frankly exhausting!