Like its much-praised predecessor, Smilla’s Sense of Snow (EW’s 1993 Book of the Year), Danish author Peter Hoeg’s Borderliners deals with misfits-characters who cannot find their place within that country’s tidy, determinedly progressive society. Also like the earlier novel, Borderliners tells an intriguing mystery tale, one in which the ultimate secret behind a seemingly inexplicable act of mad violence lies hidden behind the benign facade of scientific objectivity. If a bit less charming and reader-friendly than Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Hoeg’s second novel delivers a powerful punch.
By ”borderliners,” Hoeg’s narrator (also named Peter Hoeg) means children like himself — wards of the state, shuttled from orphanages to boarding schools, protected by nobody in particular, merely by the abstract constraints of the law. ”Within the first ten years of my life,” he confides, ”I had been in four different institutions. So I was damaged…. It was difficult, if not impossible, for me to establish stable emotional relationships — in other words, to have any deep feelings.”
But what does anybody really know of anybody else’s feelings? Particularly when, no matter how good the state’s intentions, sadists and sexual predators are drawn to vulnerable children like ravens to roadkill. And the children, in turn, must learn whatever skills of deviousness and cunning they can in order to protect themselves. Even — no, especially — at a place like Biehl’s Academy, a prestigious, science-and-math-oriented private school idealistically committed to social experimentation.
”Why were their children removed?” writes an orphan named Katarina in a smuggled note. She means the children of the faculty and staff, nine children in all, who left Biehl’s Academy all at once with no explanation given. Katarina also struggles to cope with her mother’s death and her father’s subsequent suicide. Can the disappearance of the others possibly be linked to the appearance at the school of a third orphan, Peter’s decidedly odd roommate, August?
August often must be force-fed his daily medication. He slips out of bed at night and down to the kitchen, where Peter finds him inhaling gas to put himself to sleep. Despite being forbidden to communicate under the academy’s strict disciplinary code, Peter and Katarina soon uncover a dreadful secret. Not only did August murder both his parents, even more frightening, he doesn’t seem to remember doing it.
How can the authorities possibly believe that August — an obviously unstable and potentially dangerous boy — would prosper in the high-pressure atmosphere of the school? Are they aware that headmaster Biehl himself, in defiance of a Danish ban on corporal punishment in schools, has a habit of beating children? For all its claustrophobic atmosphere, a brilliant novel of shattering force. A-