A TOP A HILL overlooking the Mauri River Valley and the town of Capitolia--in a world that is not quite our own, but resembles it--sits an exclusive girls' school named St. Saturn's. Its headmaster, "the fairy" to his students, dresses up in elaborate costumes, writes fictional memos to create an image for the school, invents imaginary visitors (his secretary impersonates them), and worries incessantly over the school's dire financial condition.

The school's naturalist, highly respected in his field, is a chronic liar even in his lectures (birds sleepwalk off their branches at night, and can be found lying unconscious on the ground, "like apples," in the morning). The school classicist is a severe woman who has a fine down on her cheeks "like the fuzz of soft, dying fruit" and who wears a mechanical hand. The local villagers bear a resentment toward St. Saturn's that borders on hatred, and speak a gibberish that no one at the school can understand. The head maintenance man hears voices and has been known to expose himself to the girls. The village priest has a homosexual passion for the headmaster. The nine students--ranging in age from 8 to 16--have formed exclusive cliques, and when a new girl arrives who is fat and hairy, who smokes cigarettes and stashes food in her room, they seriously contemplate murder.

Anyone who has ever been associated with a boarding school will understand the essential truth of these imagined facts.

Edmund Apffel's comic novel about a rebellion at St. Saturn's is both wildly imaginative and deadly accurate. The treasonous party forms quite naturally--the disgruntled teachers, irate townspeople, the new girl--and if the eventual result is bloody mayhem that borders on a full- scale revolution, it only takes matters to their logical conclusion. Apffel writes with the elegant detached style of a born satirist, but what is most impressive is that he doesn't distance himself too much; his characters remain sympathetic to the reader and to one another. It is oddly touching the way the girls go along with the eccentricities of their headmaster, and gather around him when things start to collapse. At the heart of this novel is an innocence that is very true to school life, and in a large gallery of memorable characters it is the girls themselves who steal the show.

This is a brilliant fictional debut.