The Truants

The Truants

by Kate Weinberg


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"[A] hypnotic debut. . . .[An] uncommonly clever whodunit."—New York Times Book Review

Perfect for lovers of Agatha Christie and The Secret History, The Truants is a seductive, unsettling, and beautifully written debut novel of literary suspense—a thrilling exploration of deceit, first love, and the depths to which obsession can drive us.

"Deftly plotted and with vivid, compelling characters." —Jojo Moyes
"A fresh, smart, exciting voice." —Elin Hilderbrand

People disappear when they most want to be seen.

Jess Walker has come to a concrete campus under the flat gray skies of East Anglia for one reason: to be taught by the mesmerizing and rebellious Dr. Lorna Clay, whose seminars soon transform Jess's thinking on life, love, and Agatha Christie. Swept up in Lorna's thrall, Jess falls in with a tightly knit group of rule-breakers—Alec, a courageous South African journalist with a nihilistic streak; Georgie, a seductive, pill-popping aristocrat; and Nick, a handsome geologist with layers of his own.

But the dynamic between the friends begins to darken, until a tragedy shatters their friendships and love affairs, and reveals a terrible secret. Soon Jess must face the question she fears most: what is the true cost of an extraordinary life?

An Entertainment Weekly Best Book of January
A USA Today Must-Read Book of Winter
An Observer Book of the Year (UK)
A Marie Claire Top 5 Christmas Read (UK)
A Times Best New Crime Novel (UK)
A Guardian Top 10 Golden Age Detective Novel
An Irish Times Best Debut of 2019
An Apple Books Pick for January

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525541967
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/28/2020
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 90,733
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Kate Weinberg was born and lives in London. She studied English at Oxford and creative writing in East Anglia. She has worked as a slush pile reader, a bookshop assistant, a journalist and a ghost writer. The Truants is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


Dear Dr. Clay,


Having been ill for most of Freshers' Week, I have only just made it down to the English department to open my mail. I was due to start your course "The Devil Has the Best Lines" next Tuesday, but a note from the administration office informs me that due to "oversubscription" my place has been deferred to "a future date as yet unknown."


I am writing to tell you just how crushed I am by this news. Since I first read your masterpiece The Truants I have considered your scorching and irreverent commentary as something of a manifesto for life. I applied to this university purely so that I could be taught by you, and on receiving a place immediately requested to study in either of the modules that you offer this term. Since my place in "The Devil Has the Best Lines" was confirmed at the beginning of the summer I have completed the reading list, including a full immersion in the gin-soaked minds of Hunter S. Thompson, Zelda Fitzgerald, and John Cheever.


I did this mainly in the back room of a pet shop in Reigate where I took a job this summer, cleaning shit out of budgerigar and hamster cages so that I could finance my studies. All of which was made bearable by the idea of being taught by you.


So this news is a blow indeed. Considering we have not yet met I can't understand what I have done . . .


Someone knocked on the door. I ignored it and carried on typing furiously.


. . . that makes me suddenly less desirable or eligible than another student . . .


More knocking.


It feels, to paraphrase a famous poem, like someone is treading all over my dreams. I am writing this letter as a last-ditch attempt, an appeal to your humanity . . .


The door banged open. A blond guy with lazy, knowing eyes in a handsome face. Mark, or maybe Max. Second year. Historian. Let's say Max.


For a moment he stared at me in confusion. Then his gaze moved from where I was sitting cross-legged on the bed and roved suspiciously over the contents of the room: bare, Blu Tack-scarred walls, narrow single bed, small hanging wardrobe, my half-unpacked suitcase.


"Sorry, wrong room." He had already turned to go when he twisted round, hand on the doorframe. "Hey . . . Didn't we meet in the bar last night?"


I nodded, biting back a sarcastic comment. I have lots of very curly, long dark hair, a wide mouth, and quite a slight figure: Boys notice me briefly, I think, then look elsewhere. Max had patently introduced himself-walking toward me, smiling straight into my eyes-in the hope of chatting up Georgie. A moment of deference toward the friend of the target . . . I knew the score. It had already happened a couple of times last night, enough to make me suspect that my new friend was one of those girls that men find irresistible. Something about her almost too-curvy body, her boyishly cropped blond hair, her sloping, sleepy eyes made everyone-even me-think about sex.


"So, Georgie's a good friend of yours?" Max said, sitting down on the end of my bed and pushing back a fringe of newly washed hair.


"Kind of." If it hadn't been for the letter I'd just been writing, I might have been amused by being used so transparently. Tapping out the end of my sentence, I signed off with a digital flourish: Yours, ever-hopeful, Jessica Walker.


"You weren't at school together or anything?"


"Why do you ask?"


"Just wondering. Girls are so tight with girls they've met at school. You seemed kind of into each other." He was one of those guys who was a lot less handsome when he smiled. More of a smirk really, showing too many teeth cluttered in his jaw.


"We met last week."


"But you're best friends already." He nodded knowingly. "Do you know where she is? She said she'd come for a coffee with me but I'm sure she said she was in Room 16B. This is 16B, isn't it?"


I nearly laughed. Thanks for that, Georgie. "She's gone home for a few days."


"Oh?" He hesitated for a moment. "To see her boyfriend?"


I shrugged. "I haven't checked her schedule."


He raised his hands defensively. "Right." He looked at me again, as if being forced to read instructions on a manual that he'd hoped he could bypass. "Remind me your name?"


I looked at the weak, handsome face, his shirt belted into pressed jeans. Minor public school, I hazarded. Father's a chauvinist. Lazy worldview.


"The answer is, 'I don't know.'"


"You don't know what?"


"I don't know whether Georgie has a boyfriend."


The lobes of his ears went pink, but he managed to pull himself together in time to laugh it off. "I'm sure she has. Just tell her Max stopped by, will you?"


After he left, I reread the email a couple of times, the cursor hovering over the "send" icon. It was a stupid letter, a childish, petulant letter, written on the back of four days of stomach flu and a wobbly trip to the bar that Georgie had talked me into "because there's only so much Ava Gardner you can get away with before you become Howard Hughes." I had written it for myself really, not actually to send. It was only because it was a Sunday and the administration office was closed, leaving me no place to vent my disappointment, that I had even thought of hunting through the university website to get Dr. Lorna Clay's email address. Then I looked over at my copy of The Truants alone on the shelf above the built-in desk-its pages so well-thumbed that it wouldn't close properly-and thought, Fuck it, what have I got to lose? And with a sudden rush of adrenaline, clicked the mouse.


As soon as I snapped shut my laptop, regret settled over me like an itchy blanket.


And then the itch sank deeper into my bones as I felt myself being dragged backward in time. Back to Boxing Day at home nine months before, with my sister scowling on the sofa as my father made bad jokes about her boyfriend (Dan Pike: plenty more fish in the sea), not understanding that being dumped over Christmas when you're twenty-one doesn't call for a punch line, much less a pun-my dad, who painted fantastical figures in the shed at the end of our garden but left his imagination locked up there, and my older brother, smirking as he stroked the knobby spine of our chocolate Lab, Gladstone, by the fire, and the twins not giving a shit, and my mother not really listening, much less caring, so that in the end I had stood up and walked out.


And the thing I happened to have in my hand as I walked into the kitchen, a book we had been given at Christmas by Uncle Toto, of all people. That feeling when I read the first few pages of The Truants, my bum warm against the stove and the smell of mince pies, like hot tar, in the air-a book that should have been cleverly irrelevant at best, a book about some drunk, dead writers. Literary criticism-when the hell did that change anyone's life, for God's sake? Except it did, mine. And I knew it would, almost from the first paragraph, because Lorna's voice pulled me in and down, like a riptide carrying you underwater and far out to sea so that when, about page five, I flipped to the author picture on the back and saw her clever, beautiful face and read the sentence about where she taught, I thought: Here she is at last. The person who will take me out of this small, airless world before the banality chokes me.


The rooms in Halls all had narrow floor-to-ceiling windows. I stood up to open mine, then remembered you couldn't. To discourage suicides, I thought, looking at the gray paving slabs below.


Under a flat morning sky, a stream of people was walking away from the zigzag-shaped residence halls, across the scrubby grass toward the gray cinder blocks that made up the back of the canteen. Without the glowing prospect of Lorna's teaching, I was confronted by the drab reality of where I would be living for the next three years: a concrete shithole in the middle of flat, windswept Norfolk on what-if you looked at a map-actually was the bulging arse of the United Kingdom.


Worse, I would now be shoved into some other, unknown module, most likely with Dr. Porter, who wore skinny black jeans and one earring and had pegged me as a Lorna groupie when I'd come for my interview. No doubt he would be teaching something pretentious and incomprehensible, like "The Phonetics of Postmodernism" or one of those other courses that made me sympathize for a moment with my mother's views on studying English Lit.


Spots appeared on the window, multiplying rapidly.


It had started to rain.



I waited until I saw Max and his carefully coiffed hair emerge down below and strike off toward the canteen in search of a consolatory bacon-and-egg roll. Then I pulled on some clothes and walked two doors down the corridor. Checking my watch, I knocked loudly and stepped in.


It was dark and slightly stuffy in Georgie's room. She jackknifed up in the bed, one hand pushing her eye mask up into her blond hair and the other pulling out one of her earplugs and scrabbling for the bedside lamp. When she saw it was me, she sagged back against her pillow with a groan.


"Are you fucking kidding me?"


"Sorry. But it is midday. And I'm having a crisis."


Georgie pulled out the other earplug. The mask sat across her forehead at a drunken angle, one puffy eye squinting at me. "Oh, hon. Not sick again?"


"Worse," I said. "Heartsick. Been dumped by Lorna."


My first week at college had been a catastrophe in social terms. Barely an hour after my mother had dropped me off with my suitcases, a peck on the cheek, and a brisk look around the room-

"Seems clean at least!"-the cramping had begun. Followed by three days of shivering and sweating out a stomach flu in my room, looking glumly through my window at the clump of students that formed and re-formed around the bar, scribbling self-pitying notes in my journal whenever I could summon the energy.


On the third day, temperature still raging, a fuzz at the edges of my vision, I dragged myself down to the introductory English drinks. Which was when Georgie, wearing tight, faded jeans and silver sneakers, her bleached hair cropped high to the hairline on her long, fine neck, had sidled over to me. "Ugly bunch, aren't they, English students?" she muttered, talking out of the side of her mouth like a gangster as the white-haired dean of studies gave a turgid welcome speech. "Can you believe Lorna didn't show at her own party? A living legend, that woman. Rumor has it she's seeing my supervisor, Professor Steadman." Georgie pointed to a tall, bespectacled man with gray hair. "But that can't be right, surely . . ." She paused, looking at me more closely. "Hey, do you know your teeth are chattering?"


Next day, to my delight, she turned up at my door with armfuls of chocolates and sweets that she announced, loudly, were "munchies" ("There's a rumor going around that you've been smoking weed in your room all week. This will fan the flames nicely"); two different kinds of prescription painkiller ("Tuck in, plenty more where they came from"); and a magazine jammed full of photos of horsey-looking aristocrats at parties ("Don't knock it. I'm related to half of them and have kissed most of the rest. Look at this guy, Tristan Burton-Hill. He's so posh he can't actually close his mouth . . .").


For the next couple of days, to my surprise, she kept popping by: one day sitting at the end of my bed with a wheel of hard cheese, which she hacked at with a teaspoon until it bent, the next bringing a handful of wildflowers that looked like dirty daisies, which she had picked by the lake on campus. "They're called sneezewort, for your dribbly nose. I went through a stage of pressing wildflowers as a kid. I learned the whole wildflower encyclopedia, which is kind of weird, looking back at it. Amazing what an only child will do to pass the time. Then I got into pottery and made endless shitty bowls. I mean, endless. Got away with about five years of never buying a single Christmas present. Shall I put them in your tooth-mug? How are you feeling today? Still got the shits both ends?"


That was the thing about Georgie. She changed tone so fast that your head whirled. Mostly, she was like a slot machine flashing all its lights in constant jackpot, but there was a kindness there, and in amidst the glib, smart chatter, beguiling glimpses of something more tender.


"Ask to be put in the Christie module with me?" she suggested now, from beneath her crooked eye mask. "Wouldn't that be a laugh?"


Georgie was doing joint honors in Philosophy and English. She claimed the Philosophy part was just to make her "sound more attractive," but I already had a strong sense that, despite her air of careless hedonism, she was also whip-smart, secretly studious, and heavily invested in showing her parents-"neglectful narcissists, the pair of them"-just how fucking clever she was.


I nodded. "I did wonder. But it's bound to be full, too."


The other thing that Lorna was renowned for, apart from the cult status of The Truants, was "rescuing" female authors who had been lost or dismissed from the canon as irrelevant. One of these "personal revisionism" courses was on Agatha Christie, about whom, rumor had it, she was now writing a book. When I'd signed up for the modules online I'd looked at Lorna's Christie course, "Murdered by the Campus," with a flicker of longing.


In my early teens, thanks to an old lady I'd visit in Reigate, Stella, I'd read a lot of Agatha Christie out loud. In my later teens, I started reading them for myself-a bit of fun in between more serious books. But although I loved the cat's cradle of the plot, the way the clues and red herrings were stitched together, I knew the characters were thin at best and the themes scant: I couldn't see how even Lorna would make this into an actual undergrad course. So I hadn't hesitated long before clicking on her other module, "The Devil Has the Best Lines."

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