National Review, by John Wilson
If you had told me, earlier this year, that I would be immersed in not one but two long novels set in an English boarding school, I would have scoffed. If you had told me that I would be looking forward to the author’s next book (which, alas, I’ll probably have to wait several years for), I would have been incredulous. Such is the power of a writer like H. S. Cross.
The Toughness of Salvation, by Victor Lee Austin
What does the title of this book mean? It is the nickname, spoken by the boys just so — “Grievous,” sans honorific — of a housemaster at St. Stephen’s Academy in Yorkshire in the year 1931. St. Stephen’s is a boys’ boarding school with a scandalous past, a dingy present, and an unexpected interiority. It also has, for part of this year 1931, a girl in its midst, one Cordelia, goddaughter of housemaster John Grieves. Cordelia’s mother (affliction unclear), who suffers quack medicine (have the “treatments” of 1931 ever been so frightfully evoked, where mercury is taken as health-producing but penicillin is feared?), was and remains the one whom Grieves would love. Grieves, a widower, is corresponding also with the mother of one of his schoolboys (herself a widow and a nurse). As a boy, Grieves grew up in the home of Jamie Sebastian, St. Stephen’s present headmaster, with Jamie’s sisters and bishop-father, where strange loves and longings were had and continue.
As you see, the book is a universe of emotion and action, of thought and repentance, all connected to John Grieves, who at one time put his life together by becoming a pacifist — he did it for love of Cordelia’s mother — and whose life, along with his pacifism, are now going, wrenchingly, to turn to dust.
Read the rest.
Kirkus starred review
This is a sequel to the U.S. writer’s immersive debut about a British boarding school in the 1920s and shows her quirks and craft deployed to better effect
Five years after the upheaval depicted in Wilberforce (2015), life at St. Stephen’s Academy has returned to its version of normalcy. That is to say, its public school boys talk a strange slang while enduring bullying, caning, and countless other rituals: “What was to be worn when and how, who could be addressed and in what manner.” The story chronicles the period of March to December 1931, and it’s a busy tale that flits among a large cast linked by complicated ties of blood, friendship, or animosity.
Booklist - starred review
Cross returns to public boys school St. Stephens Academy in Yorkshire, the setting of her first novel, Wilberforce (2015). The year is now 1931, and, though the book offers the points of view of 11 different characters, the two principals are John Grieves (nicknamed Grievous), who teaches history at the academy and is the housemaster of Thomas Gray "Brains" Riding, a bright, introspective 14-year-old with a gift for writing. John is desperately in love with Meg, a married woman, while Gray loves her daughter, Cordelia, who is John’s goddaughter. Meg emerges as another of the principal characters, as does the headmaster, Jamie, a lifelong friend of John’s. John serves in loco parentis to Gray, whose father is dead, but their relationship is often fraught, thanks to Gray’s misadventures and disobedience. The world of the school is vividly evoked, as are the lives of secondary characters. Nevertheless, Cross doesn’t cut her readers any slack; her novel is often maddeningly opaque. What, for example, is the precise nature of the relationship between John and Jamie? What happened between one of the prefects, Moss, and the eponymous Wilberforce, who makes a brief encore appearance? Still, the novel is beautifully written, a tour de force of psychological insight into its richly realized characters, and an extraordinary exercise in mood, tone, and characterization. It is not to be missed.
— Michael Cart
YA: Older teens who enjoy literary fiction and British boarding-school novels won't want to miss this one. It will also delight fans of David Mitchell. MC.
Cross (Wilberforce) tells the story of John Grieves and his charge, young Gray Riding, in this rich novel. Grieves—nicknamed Grievous—is a housemaster at St. Stephen’s Academy in 1931 Yorkshire who watches Gray’s struggles through adolescence. At 14, Gray is an exceptionally intelligent student who has been moved ahead in school and is younger than the other boys in his class; his creativity emerges in a fantasy book he works on to help him through prep school. During the three terms that Gray is in the “Remove,” the year before entering the “Upper School,” he engages in adventures with his friends, and also experiences and witnesses abusive corporal punishment. Gray even finds young love in Grieves’s 13-year-old goddaughter, Cordelia. As housemaster, Grieves can’t replace Gray’s dead father, but he can attempt to understand the battles of youth in an old-fashioned school filled with adolescent boys, whose personalities range from emotional to athletic and from friendly to bullying. Although elements of the writing style (disjointed dialogue and slang) may require some patience from the reader, the complex characters lend an intriguing poignancy to this tale.
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Historical Novel Society
This novel is crammed with masses of colorful details of public-school cruelty, swotting, cricket, 1930s schoolboy slang, and homoerotic yearning, but it adds a web of family entanglements that expands the setting and allows the reader a glimpse of the confusion and ennui that afflicted the British professional classes between the World Wars.