cover image Borderliners


Peter Heg, Peter Hoeg. Farrar Straus Giroux, $22 (277pp) ISBN 978-0-374-11554-8

In Hoeg's previous book, the thriller Smilla's Sense of Snow, the psychological insights and background detail were more gripping than the action scenes. Here, he has largely eschewed action and produced a story of psychological suspense in which the sense of menace is nearly palpable. This is a bleak, heartbreaking tale of gallant, desperately frightened children accepted on probation by an elite private school near Copenhagen. The narrator, Peter, was 14 when he arrived there, after anguished years in other institutions. Yet this school is even more frightening: both tyrannical mind control and physical violence are used to intimidate the students, in the name of scientific ``improvement.'' Peter makes friends with two other ``borderliners,'' the orphaned Katarina and August, a psychotic youngster who has repressed the fact that he killed his parents because they tortured and abused him. Together these damaged children strive to understand the goals of what they intuit as the school's ``grand plan.'' They also have reason to inquire into the nature of time, for the traumas they have experienced have left them unsure of what constitutes reality. Hoeg succeeds brilliantly in conveying the fear of children who are helpless against brutal adult authority. His speculations about time, the principles of education and moral values are equally impressive, but those expecting a conventional thriller may find these passages digressive and heavy-handed. In the end, after all the portentous references to ``the plan,'' its eventual unveiling is anticlimactic. And the disparity between the school's supposedly noble objective and its wretched practices strains credibility. The book, like the plan, is a laudable effort that falls somewhat short of its goals. Hoeg retains a shocker for the closing pages, however, leading readers to speculate about the autobiographical elements of the story. 75,000 first printing. (Nov.)