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St. Ebury, an elite Ottawa boarding school, might appear to an outsider like a place steeped in rules and traditions. But the animal instincts of the boys who reside there are only barely restrained. A handful of girls are also in attendance—among them, Fall, a beautiful and elusive figure who becomes the object of fascination for many of the male students, including Noel, a smart, intensely idiosyncratic young man. But Fall ends up dating his roommate, Julius, the charismatic son of the American ambassador, whom Noel also fixates upon. Amid a heady mix of hormones and delusional impulses, Noel gradually loses control of his obsessions.
Told from the very different perspectives of Julius and Noel, Fall is a psychologically acute and relentless literary thriller—“sensitive, honest and horrifying” (The Guardian).
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The days that made me, that were supposed to change me, that didn't actually make me, are showing me now what I was. My days in the room with Julius. Years have provided some safety.
That was not a school with pipes and dons and tweeds.
It wasn't a place where people spoke like people don't speak.
It wasn't in the Highlands of Scotland or the hills of New England.
It was a place of traditions but the traditions weren't old.
Like most private schools it was part fantasy, part reality, and therefore all reality. A place where stories happened, not fables, where there was learning, not lessons, and no one came away with memories of neat moral episodes. I came away with memories.
There were too many contradictions for there to have been any sense, and my life has always been so. We were boys who wore suits, monkeys with manners. We didn't have parents but were treated like babies. We were left on our own but had hundreds of rules to abide.
We were eighteen years old, as grown-up as we could be.
My memories are twitching like morning in the city.
"Laundry day," said Chuck. He was standing in the hall with Ant, looking into our bedroom, where Julius was lying with a cloth over his eyes.
"Laundry day," said Ant, echoing Chuck, and he rushed into our room, swung his laundry-filled pillowcase, and pounded Julius in the head.
Julius said, "Fuck off. I mean it."
I had to take a test to get into St. Ebury. I was fourteen. My parents took me — just before they went away. The three of us sat across from the Head Master, who did all the interviews himself, and I noticed that he never looked at me oddly.
"Noel will have to take a test," he said. I looked for signs.
Money was all that mattered — that's what I'd heard about St. Ebury. Money wasn't an issue. I looked for signs on his face to see if he was uncomfortable about my eye.
"It's an intelligence test, essentially," he said.
"We weren't told," I said, speaking for my parents.
"There's no preparation," the Head Master said. "No need to study. All you need is this pencil." I was sent to an empty classroom.
Julius had a hangover.
"He's hung," said Chuck.
"Big night," said Ant.
"Big hung," said Chuck.
"He wishes," said Ant.
"Better hung than you," said Chuck, and Ant pounded him in the head with his laundry-filled pillowcase.
"Get the fuck out," said Julius, his face in his pillow now.
It was Sunday and everyone had stories about the weekend.
"Ant found some of your barf on his shoes this morning," Chuck said to Julius.
"I smelled it first," said Ant. "Then I found it. A bit of, like, potato, caught up in the laces."
"Fffuh," said Julius.
"And you're cleaning it," said Ant.
"It's laundry day," said Chuck. "Clean away the weekend, man, wash it all away. I can not believe how Fuck In Drunk I was last night, and there I am in the corner thinking, I will not get any action tonight and I look over at you two, Jules over here, Mr. Hurlius, hurling and heaving all over your shoes, and I think, Man, I will get action tonight because I am not as ugly as those two chumps."
"And the fact?" said Ant.
"The fact is," said Chuck, "that I did not get any action."
"The sad truth," said Ant.
"It is the sad truth, Antony, and the sadder truth is that you have barf on your sneakers, and sadder ... the saddest truth of all is that Mr. Hurlius here got action and we came back with nothing."
"Sad," said Ant.
"So," said Chuck. "Wake the fuck up, Julius, and tell us."
"Cheeses, Choolius, tell us all about it."
"Please get out," said Julius. He rolled over to make it clear. "Please, get out of my room," he said, and buried his face again.
"Your room?" said Chuck. He leaned on the top bunk, looking at Julius on the bottom. He tapped on the empty top mattress.
"Your room?" said Ant, who looked toward the sink in the corner of the room.
"Come on, Jules. Wake up. Don't feel sorry for yourself. Wake up. It's two o'clock. It's sunny. It's laundry day. Three hours before Chapel. One load of whites. One load of darks. Two smokes. And Chapel is upon us."
"Come on," said Ant.
"Come on," said Chuck.
"Come on," said Ant.
"Come on," said Chuck.
"Come on," said Ant.
"Oh for fucks," said Julius and he rolled out of bed, landing on the floor face upward. He lifted up his shirt, exposing his nipples, looked at Chuck and Ant, and said: "Suck 'em."
Chuck opened the door to the closet and grabbed Julius's laundry-filled pillowcase from the closet floor.
"His nipples are brown," said Ant of the nipples of Julius.
"Yum," said Chuck.
"It's a tan," said Julius.
Chuck threw the pillowcase at Julius. "The man with the tan," said Chuck. "Now," he said. "Tell us. Tell us how this man with the weird brown nipples gets so fuckin' lucky."
They walked toward the door, one, two, three, and each raised his eyebrows at the sink in the corner.
I was standing by the sink and continued to brush my teeth.
St. Ebury sat on a hill in the richest part of town, Sutton, where all the ambassadors lived. St. Ebury turned 121 that year, making it one of the oldest schools in Canada. There were 114 boarders between grades nine and twelve. Only thirty of them were girls.
Usually seniors could choose their roommates. Julius had too many friends. He had so many friends that they all assumed he was spoken for. They all paired up and Julius was left alone. He didn't get the roommate he wanted.
I had been at St. Ebury since grade eight. Julius arrived from the States in grade eleven. I was friends with no one.
Seniors had only one roommate. When people arrived in grades nine to eleven they got stuck with two or three other roommates in big rooms with two sinks, two bunks, and two closets.
Seniors lived in the rooms along the front of the school, looking over the main entrance and the avenue to the Head Master's house. The rooms were narrow, a bunk and a sink along one wall, and two desks with shelves along the other.
The Head Boy lived alone, and there was one other single room for one other senior. Everyone thought Julius would be Head Boy, but the story was that his father intervened and said it wouldn't look right.
Then, once everyone realized he hadn't found a roommate, it was assumed that Julius would get the other single room. Being alone was a privilege. It was quiet. You could have loud dreams or dreams where you would cry and nobody would know.
They gave the room to Chris, whose real name was Tim. Chris had acne all over his face and body. One day in grade nine a boarder made him smell a dirty gym shoe. He put Chris in a headlock, held the shoe over his nose and mouth, and the struggle tore some of the acne scabs off his face so it looked like he was crying blood.
The grade nines and tens were mostly on the floor above. One of the House Masters had an apartment up there, and two Prefects shared a big room at the other end of that hall.
Julius should have been a Prefect as well, but he decided that the extra duties would get in the way of things. The Prefects helped with monitoring prep at night and making sure lights were out at bedtime. They were supposed to keep everyone in line, especially the juniors, and every night between prep and bed one of the Prefects would hold detention in room 21 — an hour for anyone who had misbehaved on the Flats.
Julius's and my room was right above the main entrance to the school. The entrance had a porch with large latticed beams that seemed designed for climbing. Most nights Julius would climb out the window to have a smoke in the park across the street from the school. Often enough he would only get as far as above the porch — stopping halfway across the beams, just outside the window, perched up high with his cigarette tip glowing and fading. Sometimes someone else would be out there with him. Our door would burst open at midnight and Chuck or Ant or both would kick the lower bunk, say "Smoke!" and they would slide the window up and go out.
"Let's go to the park," Julius might say, and "Fuck that" might be Chuck's response. So they would perch out there just beyond the window and share a cigarette's length of talk.
Chuck: "I hope we can still play rugby at McGill."
Ant: "I'll be too busy fucking."
Chuck: "Your aunt is going to McGill?" Ant: "Funny."
Julius: "I like the smell of the leaves."
They had to leave the window open a crack so they could undo the latch to get back in. They would sit out there sometimes when it was cold saying jesus jesus jesus while the wind blew into the room. Later in the year Julius went away at night and never knew that the papers on his desk turned blue when the moon shone in.
The daily routine did not change much from year to year. The only thing that changed was curfew. Grades nine and ten had to be in their rooms at 9:30 with Lights Out at 10:00. Elevens had Lights Out at 10:45, and seniors had to have lights off at 11:30. But things were more flexible the older you got, and everything depended on who was on duty.
When I arrived at St. Ebury everyone said:
"Her father's an Italian count."
"They wear gloves when they eat dinner."
"Her real name is Fallon."
"Fallon Fitzgerald DeStaad."
"She's a bitch."
"She's not a real blonde."
"She's the smartest in the school."
"Her father's high tech."
"Was IncoTel, he ditched and made a stinkload."
"Mother took it all."
"I've seen them together."
"They're always in the paper."
"I've never seen them."
"Lives in the High Tech Hills."
"No one knows why she's a boarder."
"She's the smartest in the school."
"She only looks Italian."
"Born in the High Tech Hills."
"Her hair is chestnut, pure chestnut, and natural and I think it's beautiful."
"I want her to be my friend."
"She is my friend."
"She's everyone's friend."
"I love her."
I remember first seeing her in the downstairs common room floating across the school's eye.
One face could be my guide and salvation. It could be my comfort and the goal of superstition. It seems incredible that I can no longer picture her.
When I achieved a perfect mark on an essay, it presaged Fall's eventual love for me. When I scored a shot from the line in basketball, which I rarely did, it was because I would kiss Fall that week, that term, that year.
Whenever she was near, I knew it. At assemblies, I always knew where she was sitting, almost without looking. If she was in a crowd at the end of a hallway, out of sight, I sensed that she was there, and I would come close, pass by.
I didn't need her to notice me right away. I knew that she would come to know me deeply. I felt like an explorer sailing past an uncharted piece of perfection. I knew where it was, I would land there one day and my race would grow.
And when Julius arrived and everyone, including Fall, was drawn to him, I somehow wasn't upset. I felt it was part of a plan. I saw them together in the halls and I liked his face, thought she deserved a guy like that for a while.
Certainly, I never wanted to hurt her.
* * *
Boarders had to arrive the Sunday night before term started. Parents drove up throughout that Sunday, dropping off sons, daughters, suitcases. From the rooms along the front of the school you could watch it all happening.
The younger boarders usually came up to the Flats with wet noses from saying goodbye — the new ones especially. They wore clothes that they would probably never wear again — sweaters from home, jeans with holes, things that they either wouldn't be allowed to wear on the Flats or would learn to dislike once they saw what the experienced boarders wore.
If a room had two new boarders they would be friends right away. "Should we wear anything in the shower tomorrow, like a bathing suit?" was usually the first question. One would have more answers than the other.
"There's no prep tonight because it's the first night, but tomorrow it'll be at seven-thirty."
"What do we wear to prep?"
"I don't know."
"I'm thinking of showering early, just to beat the rush. Maybe I'll shower at night."
"I'm not sure we can do that."
They would unpack neatly, and would usually be careful about sharing space. "Do you want this drawer?"
"No, you take it."
"I've already got four."
"So do I. You take it."
It was the last polite night of the year.
For the boarders who already knew each other it was all routine, and part of the routine was making sure the new kids knew they were more experienced. Chuck and Ant were lifers — they'd been there since grade five — and they sat around on those first Sunday nights like nothing was happening. New kids would bump into each other, be aware of everyone, look nervous or over-friendly; some of them would ask Chuck or Ant for directions. "Umm, L Wing?" Chuck or Ant would raise a lazy arm and point, or Chuck or Ant would look at the kid's chin or ear, never in the eyes, and say, "You're there."
If they were curious, parents would come up to the Flats and look at where they were leaving their children. They always smiled and said, "Great, isn't this great," and whispered advice like "You should take the desk near the window." But it was usually just kids coming up on their own, dragging bits of their home with them — posters, stereos, favourite lamps.
The quiet, shy ones would be quiet and shy, announcing themselves more obviously than the ones who tried to make friends. They were doomed. Most of the bullying started in the lower grades.
There was a kid named Edward in grade nine that year who was six-foot-five and skinny. He hunched his shoulders and leaned forward like he was afraid of being so tall. His dad came up to the Flats with him that Sunday and between them they carried a gigantic metal chest that attracted everyone's attention. The only difference between Edward and his dad was that his dad was smiling. They both ducked when they went through Edward's new doorway. His new roommates were there, staring, and other people were curious about his chest.
Edward's dad kept smiling and said, "I don't know what you've got in that chest, but I hope she's alive," and he blew a laugh out his nose with a rope of clear snot which made him stop laughing abruptly. He looked around embarrassed and said, "This is Edward."
Edward's dad was serving in The Hague, and Edward had spent the summer in Holland. He was another diplomat's kid who would be at St. Ebury as long as his parents were overseas.
Both of his new roommates had arrived and unpacked and were quiet while Edward's dad was still around.
"Let's say one last goodbye to your mum," said the dad.
While Edward followed his dad downstairs his two new roommates moved toward that huge metal chest and started playing with the lock. A few other new grade nines went in and they all started pulling on the lid and kicking the chest, gently at first.
When Edward came back up they moved away from the chest.
"You can't keep that there. It's too big. You'll get in trouble."
"You'll get in trouble, Edward."
"What's in it? You should just empty it."
Edward had his pants pulled up high.
Edward's shirt was tucked deep into his pants.
Edward banged the toe of his big shoe on the corner of the bed when he moved toward the chest.
When he spoke and said, "There's stuff in it, there's nothing," his voice was a shaky version of his dad's.
When he opened his chest weeks later it was full of ugly treasure.
There was a dinner that Sunday for those who wanted it, and nobody wanted it. Kids like Edward would pull out a book and lie on their bed. The quiet ones with pimples read science fiction or something about wizards.
That Sunday somehow always passed quickly, even though everyone was nervous about the first day of school or about their new home.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fall"
Copyright © 2015 Colin McAdam.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
Part love story, part mystery, all set within the cloistered world of an elite coed boarding school, Colin McAdam’s Fall is the psychologically gripping story of two roommates and what happens when the girlfriend of one of them goes missing. Written with McAdam’s electric talent for language and an uncanny ear for the way teenagers think and communicate, it goes deep into the heads of two very different teens—one cerebral, the other pure id—to craft a literary page-turner.
ABOUT COLIN MCADAM
Colin McAdam is the author of Some Great Thing, which won the Books in Canada/Amazon.ca First Novel Award, and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Roger Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. His nonfiction has appeared in Harper’s. The son of a diplomat, he grew up in Hong Kong, Denmark, England, and Canada, and was educated at McGill University and Cambridge. He now lives in Montreal.
- Julius’s side of the story is told in present tense, in a stream-of-consciousness style, and ends with his and Fall’s last date. Noel’s is the voice of someone looking back over more than a decade. What is the effect of Julius’s voice being frozen in time—forever eighteen, forever innocent of Fall’s fate? Does it affect the way you feel about him? How about the maturity of Noel’s perspective: does it alter your interpretation of his actions or your feelings about him? Whose voice did you find more compelling and why?
- The author looks at the adolescent experience both from the inside (Julius’s perspective) and from the outside (Noel’s retrospect as well as William’s perspective). Do they differ? Did you find the author’s portrayal of adolescence convincing?
- Noel tells us, “People occasionally thought Julius was vaguely stupid because his answers were brief and oblique, but I knew how perceptive he was.” Do you agree with Noel’s assessment? Why or why not?
- Although the narrative is largely a duet between the two boys, there is another voice—William’s. What does his perspective add to the story? Why do you think the author chose to add his voice and not, say, Fall’s? What is the effect of our seeing her only through Noel and Julius’s eyes?
- After Fall’s disappearance, Noel muses, “No one attracts our solicitation as much as a pretty girl. She is a vessel of our hopes, we suggest her future, instinctively give her guidance, love to watch her, expect her to move through extraordinary spaces. And if something goes wrong, we instinctively imagine her as the victim...But what we hate to acknowledge is her volition” (pp. 291-2). Do you agree or disagree? To what extent is this feeling mirrored in his interactions with Fall? Do other characters in the book feel the same way? What is Fallon’s role in this novel?
- According to Noel, part of Julius’s appeal is “A strange obliviousness to the world, which somehow drew the world to him” (p. 81). Do you agree? To what extent is Noel also oblivious, and what effect does that have on the people around him? In the same passage, which describes a quiet moment shared in their room, Noel says, “I feel like it was then that our bond really developed.” How would you characterize that bond, that friendship?
- In a traditional mystery narrative structure, the crime is described in the beginning and the culprit is revealed at the end. As much as either of those things occurs in Fall, they happen in the scene of Fall and Noel’s struggle on the riverbank. Why do you think the author chose to put that scene nearly in the middle of the book? What is gained and lost by this structure? How is our interpretation of the event colored by what we learn, before and after?
- At one point, Noel tells us that “I know she was alive when I left her and ran up the hill, and I never saw the scene as a grave...Someone went down there and helped her. Someone found her and that life we can never know was known” (p. 277). How certain are you of Fall’s actual fate? Why do you think the author chose to be vague?
- Noel tells us “I am writing all of this down because I wish to be more than a lonely collection of other people’s perceptions” (p. 327). What do you think he means? How does Noel’s perception of himself differ from others’? Do you trust him as a narrator?
- Can Fall be interpreted in part as a story of innocence vs. evil, or simply the loss of innocence? How do you think Julius or Noel would answer the question, “Does evil really exist?” Noel marks a passage from G. K. Chesterton: “For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy” (p. 223). Do you agree or disagree? In what ways does that idea play out in the novel? In Biblical terms, the story of “The Fall” refers to Adam and Eve’s realization of sin and their expulsion from Paradise—what are the parallels here?