TITLE: THE VIRGINS
AUTHOR: PAMELA ERENS
Details: Received from John Murray
Bruce Bennett-Jones is starting his last year of high school at the Auburn Academy boarding school when he sees Aviva Rossner for the first time. It is the start of the 1979 - 80 school year and Bruce is interested in Aviva from the moment he watches her step off the bus.
Aviva isn’t for Bruce though. It doesn’t seem to take the girl anytime at all before she hooks up with Seung Jung who is a senior like Bruce. Almost from the start of the relationship, the school is buzzing with talk of Aviva and Seung; the young couple seems so close, so intimate, so unashamedly attracted to each other that the other pupils can’t help imagine their sexual adventures.
It is only after everything goes wrong with the most horrible of consequences that Bruce comes to realise that maybe things weren’t as clear cut as he thought. And that realisation affects Bruce so strongly that years later, he feels the need to share Aviva and Seung’s story with the world.
This is a book about teenagers and the volatility of their feelings. The story is told by Bruce Bennett-Jones a rather typical high school senior. His hormones play havoc with him, girls occupy his mind and sex intrigues him. Aviva attracts his attention the moment she steps off the bus and he is quick to introduce himself to her and help her with her luggage, even quicker to kiss her once they get to her dorm room. And then he flees, afraid of the consequences if he’s caught in the girls’ dorm.
That must be the moment he ruined things for himself. Although his obsession with Aviva only grows over the rest of the school year, Bruce lost her as soon as he found her. The next thing Bruce knows Aviva and Seung are a couple, flaunting their relationship and sexuality for all to see.
When I say that Bruce is the one telling this story I have to point out that he doesn’t have a lot of the facts, something he freely admits.
“I’m inventing Seung, too, of course. It’s the least I can do for him.”
Bruce plays only a small role in the drama that is Seung and Aviva’s relationship. A small role with devastating consequences. Because Bruce doesn’t actually know a lot about Seung and even less about Aviva we never know if what he tells us about them and their relationship is true or imagined. This made the story feel a bit contrived for me. I never got a real impression of any of the characters in this book.
“I’ve imagined every part of her: her body, her thoughts, the conversations she has with her friends, with her brother and father and mother, the things she says to him, Seung, the books she reads and the fantasies that make her touch herself.”
Aviva and Seung remain vague because the reader knows that the narrator is sharing what he imagines may have happened without knowing whether or not he’s right. And because he never finds out if his assumptions are correct, the reader can’t be sure either. And we don’t get a much better picture of Bruce himself. While he doesn’t try to make himself look good or nice - quite the opposite actually - we can’t be sure if he really was a rather nasty young man or if it is his guilty conscience talking. The result, for me, was a rather intriguing read that left me a bit dissatisfied by the time I turned the last page.
What this book does really well, on the other hand, is illustrate the workings of a teenage mind. The extremes of emotion youngsters go through in those few years are vividly painted and all too recognisable. That sense of all or nothing, the constant fear of life passing you by, that you are missing out on some secret others have already discovered and the ease with which you can convince yourself that there is something fatally wrong with you, are the very powerful elements around which this story is constructed. The sparse but beautiful language only adds to the illusion of being lost in a teenage mind.
For me this was a beautiful and intriguing read that didn’t quite hit the spot. Too much relied on my ability to believe in the imagination of a narrator who doesn’t have a lot of the facts and isn’t all that sympathetic. Having said that, the author’s voice did strike a chord with me and I will almost certainly be on the lookout for more of her work.