David Hallman's Reviews > A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace by John Knowles
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Jun 04, 2012

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Read in June, 2012

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David Hallman Spartan and Incisive

John Knowles classic novel “A Separate Peace” is a model of understated tension.

Set in a boys’ boarding school in New England during World War II, it revolves around the relationship between two unlikely friends—Gene, a quiet academic, and Phineas (Finney), an outgoing and accomplished athlete.

There is so much that Knowles does not describe. We learn almost nothing about their families, their studies, or student life in general. And, surprisingly for a story about teenage boys in a private boys’ school, he includes not one sentence about raging sexual hormones.

But we do read a great deal about love and hate, competitiveness and fraternity, self-confidence and insecurity.

It struck me as if Knowles had taken a complex multi-coloured tapestry and drawn out one dark thread pulling it ever tighter and tighter. I was in tension through much of my reading of “A Separate Peace”, fixated on that one single yet all-encompassing story line, nervous about if or when it would snap.

I also experienced a profound pathos because of so much lost opportunity in the lives of the characters, a kind of smoky mirrored reflection of the global context in which the novel is set.

Much fiction writing in our age strikes me as excessively effusive emotionally. “A Separate Peace” first published in 1959 is at the extreme other end of the spectrum. I prefer to read novels (and in my own writing to attempt to situate myself) closer to Knowles’ end. But not as far along the continuum as is he. As unquestionably accomplished as “A Separate Peace” is, it is a touch too Spartan for my taste.

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