What can be done with less


Existence on the borders of normality gives three institutionalized children singular viewpoints of how the rest of society works. Peter arrives at Biehl's academy, at the end of a journey through orphanages and "homes" which has left him secretly, quietly scarred. In a halting, jumpy narration he explains how he meets fellow borderliner Katarina, and is put in charge of August (an aberration whose disruptive, violent presence at the school Peter can scarcely credit). As he probes deeper into the relationship between the school and its charges, Peter seems to uncover a conspiracy that strikes at the heart of every good Cartesian's avowed disinterest: time itself, it seems, is being used to enslave and reshape children's minds.

Peter's eccentric view is that children are being bound with time (or rather, Time) into the system of the academy, and thus normalized for their emergence into the outside world. But this is fatally undermined by his own descent into a fever that seems to have crept up on him while his attentions were diverted towards this phantasmal threat. His conclusions can hardly be unrelated to the upset to his powers of reasoning. Yet Peter is clearly involved in what he sees as a fight to the death with Time, and the jerky, piecemeal retelling of the story is both Høeg's literary device and Peter's ultimate weapon against linearity. His fragmented personality is trying to escape its own limitations, and the pain of his reminiscences, by reassembling his experiences at the academy together in this cryptic, roundabout way. In its prevarications might be seen to owe as much to Laurence Sterne as to Ken Kesey.

Borderliners can be read as a Romantic treatment of how the label of "damaged" often precedes real harm to the individual's soul, or as an indictment of the operation of certain tiers of the welfare state, or even as a story of suspense, as Peter searches for the mystical, magical secret at the heart of the academy but stumbles across a more prosaic, grubby one. It more or less works on each of these levels. But while continuing to entertain and grip the reader, it's hampered by certain consequences of its nonlinear style. At times it reads like a well-constructed, neatly-seamed story, that has somehow been allowed to relax and unravel slightly before publication: the narrative is giving a little, like seams under strain. Gaps are easily bridged, however, and the archness with which flashbacks are forever partial and obfuscated doesn't dispel the urge to follow Peter down all the subsided, rubble-strewn pathways he takes; to revisit with him the maze in which he found himself and has attempted to escape, a maze that somehow exists without ever having been planned or built.