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The story of a relationship between two young men growing up in a small Dutch town, School of Velocity proves an engrossing and unsettling short novel, a promising fiction debut for the Canadian cultural historian Eric Beck Rubin. Sparsely written, though rich in detail, it follows the intertwined lives of the narrator, Jan (a pianist) and his close friend Dirk, taking us from their boyhood enchantment with life, to the rocky straits of middle age and its disappointments – and for Jan a protracted, terrifying mental disintegration.

Jan, a sensitive schoolboy, is fascinated by and soon becomes inseparable from the flamboyant Dirk. Their relationship deepens into sexual experimentation, though neither is entirely gay. After they go their separate ways – Dirk to the USA, Jan to music college and thence into a piano career of sorts – there is the pain of distance, change and loss. Jan, though, meets a girl who is almost too good to be true and settles down with

Twenty years pass, during which they seem to be happy. But as Jan is affl icted more and more with violent auditory hallucinations that turn out to be all in the mind, so there grows the realisation that perhaps it was Dirk who was really the love of his life.

The musical side of the book is not always watertight. You can perhaps swallow some of the oddness because Jan’s mental state renders the veracity of his thoughts uncertain. I found a reference to harmonic and melodic minor arpeggios harder to take; and I have some resistance to one particular literary construction on which the whole depends (no spoilers, though).

Still, the resonances of the book go deeper as one realises increasingly that nothing is as it seems; that Jan’s perception, and his narration, may be fatally flawed. Perhaps the whole calls to mind the school of life’s own velocity, the sense of ecstasy derived from existing in the fast lane, which Jan has absorbed from Dirk and without which he is dangerously lost.

JESSICA DUCHEN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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