‘The Year of the Gadfly” is a darkly comic romp that may look at first to be just one more literary trip through the horrors and angst of high school. But you’ve never been anywhere like the elite prep school known as Mariana Academy (unless you’ve really touched a toe onto the island of “Lord of the Flies”).
Jennifer Miller, a Washington native who lives in Brooklyn, has constructed her first novel around a 14-year-old girl. Young Iris yearns to be a journalist and carries on conversations with her only friend: the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. She used to have a living best friend, but she died, a traumatic event that prompted Iris’s parents to move to a small town in the Berkshires and enroll her in this very posh new school. Iris tells us her own story, shoulders straight, chin up, tough-reporter-savvy, making sure nobody thinks she’s needy and scared. But she is. Still, she can spot a cliche from a mile away (like this one), and she’s determined to dig out the secrets of Prisom’s Party, Mariana Academy’s lethal and secret student society.
A potential ally could be Jonah Kaplan, a graduate of Mariana, who has come back to work at his former school for mysterious reasons. But one of his goals is urgent: He wants to teach young people to think for themselves and not to follow orders. That is easier said than done. (Cliche — right, Iris?)
Bad things start to happen at Mariana Academy. Who are those students wearing pig masks, and what’s happening in the dark confines of the school basement known as the Mariana Trench? What about the cruelties of the Studio Girls? Who are the underground owners of the school, who manage to pull off some breathtaking blackmail gambits?
And what really happened on one icy night 12 years ago that claimed the life of a student?
The story follows a circuitous route, told in alternating chapters by Iris, Jonah and an albino student named Lily. It’s a tricky narrative device that mostly works, although the voices tend to sound too similar at times. Still, the energy of the book never fades. And at the heart of it are serious questions. When a student agonizes about tricking someone into doing something despicable, a fellow student reassures him: “People only do what’s in their nature.”
Is that true? Or is saying so just a way of excusing the tempter? Something to chew on, after closing this vivid and very enjoyable novel.
O’Brien’s latest novel is “The Dressmaker,” written under the pen name of Kate Alcott.