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by Nick Sagan

(Bantam Press, £10.00, 275 pages, hardback, published 7 August 2003; uncorrected book proof reviewed. Bantam Books, £6.99, 374 pages, paperback, this edition published 2 August 2004.)

It happens -- all too rarely, but it happens -- that once in a while a debut novel comes along that grabs you by the unmentionables cover scanand swings there, laughing like a maniac and refusing to let go. From the moment Halloween wakes up with amnesia and starts piecing his life together, Idlewild has your groin in its sights. Halloween soon discovers that he's one of ten students at a very special school, and any one of them or their tutor Maestro could be trying to kill him. This is, however, merely the first stage of an unfolding story, and Sagan seems to delight in changing the rules just when you think you've got the hang of them. Some of the plot developments are guessable, but there's plenty to confound the reader's expectations, and all of it is couched in engaging, well-paced prose.

It's a very lively novel, and yet at its heart it's actually pretty bleak. The amnesiac Halloween doesn't much like what he finds out about himself, but he's then forced to swap that for an even less palatable truth. Loss defines him, from the loss of his memory to the loss of his friends to loss of control over his life. When he finally takes charge of his destiny, it's with precious little hope for the future, and the story ends on a very melancholic note. And yet this isn't bleakness for its own sake, but a clear progression throughout the novel. Sagan gets right inside his protagonist's head and makes him utterly believable. His fellow students are a little less remarkable as characters -- I had trouble telling a couple of them apart -- but they are at least interestingly dysfunctional. Halloween definitely shines, though, as does the temperamental Maestro.

As a novel, this is one of the best I've read all year. As a debut, it's utterly astonishing. I look forward to seeing more from Nick Sagan.

Review by John Toon.

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