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Thursday, 20 April 2017

‘The Devil and Webster’ by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Published by Faber & Faber,
6 April 2017.  
ISBN: 978-0-572-32798-0 (PB)

Previous novels by Jean Hanff Korelitz left me admiring her ability to portray the effect of serious crime on the people affected by it. If the crime itself, and especially the solving of it, proved secondary to the way it invades and damages the lives of innocent bystanders, that gave all the more weight to the author's skill at creating and developing lead characters who felt real, and her talent for drawing the reader into their worlds.

Reading The Devil and Webster, however, I rapidly began to wonder if I'd wandered into a Jane Smiley novel by mistake. Not that that's a bad thing by any means – Smiley is a novelist who presents brilliant insight in an extremely readable way. And like Smiley, Korelitz creates a microcosm which says a great deal not only about a highly respected American university which finds itself in trouble, but also about modern America in general – and also explores the effect of a difficult and potentially explosive (though not literally) situation on the protagonist and the people around her.

But the vexed question is, is it a crime novel? By halfway through, the only crimes are a particularly nasty episode of racist vandalism, and some plagiarism which lurks in the background. After two thirds, there's a half-hearted attempt at arson. There is eventually something more serious, but it's part of a final shocking twist and a long way from the main focus of the narrative.

Maybe the best way to review the book is to set that big question aside. Taken simply as a novel, regardless of genre, it's an extremely accomplished and highly readable piece of writing. Naomi Roth, appointed president of the prestigious Webster College some years earlier on the back of a student 'incident' when she was in a far more junior position, is faced with a student protest which rapidly spirals out of control and presents the college in an unfairly bad light. Naomi, herself a veteran student protester, is thwarted at every end and turn when she tries to find a fair resolution to the issue – not helped by the fact that her own daughter Hannah is a prime mover in the protest. At its centre is Omar Khayal, ostensibly a refugee from Palestine, with a tragic history, protegé of Nicholas Gall, a popular professor (lecturer in British terms) who has been refused tenure, and just happens to be black. We never meet Gall, but his sacking, as the students see it, is the focus of the protest.

What unfolds is a detailed, careful and slightly satirical picture of American higher education, seen from the perspective of a college president forced to face her own views, ideals and ambitions for the  college. Naomi emerges as a troubled soul, well-rounded, flawed, and thoroughly sympathetic and believable; if other characters are slightly less so, it's only because we see them through her eyes.

I enjoyed The Devil and Webster very much, and would recommend it highly to anyone looking for a first-class novel about an aspect of American life. But maybe best not to make the mistake of expecting classic features of a crime novel.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Jean Hannff Korelitz was raised in New York City and graduated from Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge. She has contributed articles and essays to many magazines, including Vogue, Real Simple, Newsweek, Reader's Digest, More and Travel and Leisure (Family), and the anthologies Modern Love and Because I Said So. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey with her husband, Princeton professor Paul Muldoon, and their children, and works full time as a writer and part time as a chauffeur (i.e. mom). In 2006 and 2007 she worked for Princeton's Office of Admission as an outside reader.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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