My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The trope of a new girl experiencing her first term at school is not a new trope. It is a conceit that pretty much forms the backbone of the school story genre.
Climbing A Monkey Puzzle Tree by Karen Wallace has something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a strange, near-shapeless, story upon story set in the 1960s and told by Canadian Nancy Cameron, new girl to the terribly British and austere Woodmaston House For Girls.
Nancy’s first term does not go simply. There’s a lot of darkness in this novel and there’s an edge to it that gives it a palpable sense of discomfort. It is not an easy read. And yet there’s also some very beautiful, brilliant touches that speak of the sparsely elegant story-teller Nancy (Wallace?) is destined to become.
I find it revealing that Wallace refers to herself having “lasted about eighteen month[s]” at boarding school on her official website. The phrasing of that statement suggests it was a somewhat difficult time. Climbing A Monkey Puzzle Tree is not a run of the mill school story.
What it is is a complicated, dark, sardonic, wry, psychological, (painful) account of growing up in the 1960s at boarding school. But it is also, I think, an important addition to a genre that is all too prone to the easy (“I’m a real Chalet School Girl now!”) conclusion.