A group of schoolgirls go off with two teachers on a field trip to the English countryside. They soon discover that the nearby town offers alcohol, drugs, and sex, at once tempting and terrifying. In this illicit, raw new world, isolated from the larger society and its familiar rules and repressions, some become more vulnerable, others more vicious. There are the almost casual daily cruelties the girls inflict on one another, the dangerous fault lines of their friendships, their insecurities and little shames, the awful power of the "most popular" girl and of the "in crowd." The sexual and social pressures that can break a girl emotionally and even physically and mark her forever are freshly and chillingly observed. Many readers will be reminded of Lord of the Flies. In Special, too, the shell of civilization is paper-thin, and the looming implosion of a tiny society inspires dread.
It is not the unfamiliar countryside but the untried emotional landscape these girls must negotiate that proves difficult and disturbing and leads to a shattering conclusion. This is a spellbinding, haunting novel by a brilliant young writer.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.75(d)|
About the Author
Bella Bathurst is the author of The Lighthouse Stevensons, which won the Somerset Maugham Award, and of the novel Special. Her journalism has appeared in the Washington Post, the London Sunday Times, and other major periodicals. Born in London, she lives in Scotland.
Read an Excerpt
MONDAY It was quite late when they saw the accident. They’d been driving for almost three hours, ambling down the M4 at a humiliating 55 mph. The minibus – a rented Ford with a broken wing mirror – had been making shrieking noises for a while now. When Jaws changed gears or accelerated the shriek crept upwards, close to hysteria, choking Hen’s thoughts. On the level, moving along the slow lane as they were now, the noise subsided a little but the sudden switches of volume had prevented any of them from dozing off.
The minibus was arranged like a coach with seats running parallel down its length and an aisle in the middle, but this was not like any coach Hen had seen before. Normal coaches were designed with some token understanding of the human body. They had seats covered in carpet and armrests one could lever up in order to sleep. This thing had seats covered in gaffer-taped plastic, a floor speckled with old chewing-gum spots and a smell of sweat and fried rubber.
Jules leaned over the gap between the front seats and glared at the speedometer. ‘Doesn’t it go any faster?’ ‘Play something,’ said Miss Naylor. ‘I spy with my little eye.’ Jules mouthed ‘Wanker’ at the back of Miss Naylor’s head and turned to see if anyone had been watching her. She caught Hen’s eye, grinned, and began picking at her cuticles.
The heat and the finicky driving were beginning to make all of them restless. It was one of those tight flat summer days without sun, and the heat rising up from the road seemed to get thicker with every mile they moved. It was making Miss Naylor’s foundation leak. Hen watched a trickle of sweat creep down the side of her cheek and disappear into her shirt. Miss Naylor had a broad, bland face, small eyes which bulged a little when she was angry and dyed ginger hair. She usually wore yellowy make-up slapped on thick as fish batter. The make-up clashed with the ginger and the result was so compellingly unattractive that Hen often had to suppress the urge to ask Miss Naylor if she’d ever considered surgery.
There were ten of them crammed into the minibus, eight girls in the back and two teachers up at the front. Things had started well enough. They had stood by the school gates waiting for the other two groups of girls to leave. Mel and Mina had been arguing, but as the last van turned the corner, they stopped and gazed after it. In the silence, Hen had glanced upwards and noticed that someone had left the porch light on even though it was now bright day. The light shone without anything to shine for, and there was something about its wasted usefulness which made her feel sorry for it. She felt empty for a second, a feeling almost like homesickness.
She wondered if she ought to feel jealous of the others. One lot was supposed to be going to Warwickshire and the other to Norfolk. She had no idea what either of these places was like, except that they involved countryside and undignified exercises, but it was possible that the countryside and the undignified exercises would be more interesting in Warwickshire and Norfolk than they would be in Gloucestershire.
Two minutes later, Jaws came round the side of the science block in the minibus. She was smiling. The smile dwindled as she drove closer.
Jules jeered. ‘We can’t go in that.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because,’ – poking an accusatory finger at the tyres, – ‘it’s embarrassing.’ ‘So how else are we going to get there?’ ‘Maybe we . . .’ ‘It’s either this or walking.’ ‘. . . could just stay . . .’ ‘No. Definitely not.’ Caz picked up her bags. ‘Come on. It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as here.’ And so far, she seemed to be right. Just to turn out of the school drive and onto the main road had given them all a flip of exhilaration. The minibus might be old, but it worked and the day was warm and every inch they drove was an inch further away from school. Izzy had brought along several tapes and taken control of the stereo, overriding Miss Naylor’s desultory protests. Hen had leaned back against the open window and felt the beat going right down deep into the back of her skull.
They’d chattered for the first hour or so, and then, as the temperature rose, had slowly fallen silent. Just after they passed the Swindon junction, the traffic slowed and then stopped.
Hen leaned back in her seat, shifting from thigh to thigh to stop her bones from aching. As they crawled round a curve in the road, she could see blue lights and the stripes of police vehicles ahead. An accident. The minibus screamed as Jaws tried to put it back into gear. The traffic was squeezing into the slow lane; once in a while a sunburned arm poked out of a car window, waving at Jaws to make space. Hen saw a carful of small < chhhhildren making faces out of the window. One of them stuck his tongue out and rolled his eyes at her. Next to him, a little girl in pigtails raissssssed a single obscene finger and giggled, her mouth shaping insults silently through the glass.
For the next half a mile, they stopped and stalled and started and then stalled again every few yards. A van which had been blocking their view moved over and Hen felt the blue light slam against the back of her eyes. The scene assembled itself into a recognizable disorder – three cars, one upside down with its back axle resting against the twisted central barrier, and another two crumpled beyond sense. Fragments of windscreen glass spangled prettily from the fast lane, and a fireman sprayed the bonnet of each car in a shining grey-green arc. Someone had scattered sawdust over something on the tarmac. There were two fire engines parked by the verge, an ambulance with its back doors swinging open, and three police Range Rovers. One of the policemen was standing near the flow of the traffic trying to direct the cars past the scene. Most drivers seemed too diverted by the possibility of gore to pay him any attention.
Hen was not sure where the figure came from. She only knew that she turned and saw someone running from the hard shoulder towards her. The person ran without purpose or direction, with no regard for where it was going or how it got there. It blundered into a shrub on the verge, pulled free and then ran on, almost as if it couldn’t see the line of cars, the motorway, the ambulance doors swinging open. There seemed no sense or reason in the figure’s trajectory, only this mad stumbling rush straight into the path of the traffic.
At the last minute, just before the figure whacked headlong into the side of the minibus, it stopped. Perhaps it had finally seen the white metal looming up in front of it; perhaps it had simply exhausted itself. It stood with its shoulder to the window, crowding up against Hen’s vision. In the stillness the figure reassembled itself. It was a woman, dressed smartly, as if for a wedding. She was wearing a tight, livid pink suit with a miniskirt that barely covered the tops of her thighs and a pair of vicious- looking black stilettos. Underneath the skirt, she had on a pair of scarlet tights which had ripped as she’d run. Her legs seemed absurdly thin and stringy, as if they shouldn’t have been able to support the person on top. The woman’s face was obscured by a huge cartwheel hat on which she’d fixed what looked like Valentine’s Day decorations –
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I had very high hopes for this novel. Although it had the basic sex, drugs, alcohol (provided by back cover) theme, I thought it would give me another view on the manipulating and cruel things girls can do to each other. I was hoping the author would go deep into the subject and leave me feeling breathless. But that's not what happened. The characters are very under-developed. I had trouble finding a connection with any of the characters. And it seems that the story line turned into a typical teen novel of girls with eating disorders and self-mutilation problems. I could have purchased a book from the teen section of Barnes&Noble to get that experience.
this novel left me with an overwelming feeling, and i'm not sure exactly what it was but i felt complete after it was over even though not all of my questions were answered.
Special had all the ingredients to be good - interesting characters, a good plot, colorful dialogue... But somewhere, it fell short. While I would recommend this book to anyone who likes these teen-angst-genre types of novels, it isn't at the top of the list. I think the problem was that there was no one to root for. The characters were interesting, but you don't get to spend enough time with any one to feel passionately about her. Still, it wasn't a bad read, easy to get into. It was good enough for me to give Ms. Bathurst another chance, should she take a second shot at writing fiction.