Takis Würger’s The Club (224 pages; Grove Press, translated by Charlotte Collins), is a novel designed to spur conversation. Equal parts coming-of-age tale and thriller, the story features a well-known institution ripe for critique—the secretive societies of higher education—and is willing to tackle complex issues of elitism and misogyny, all while keeping the reader engaged.
The Club follows Hans, a German orphan whose only living relative is his Aunt Alex, who teaches art history at Cambridge University. When Hans turns eighteen and graduates from boarding school, Aunt Alex recruits him to infiltrate Cambridge’s elite and mysterious Pitt Club, which she suspects may be involved in criminal activities.
The novel hits readers with nine different first-person narrators to mixed results, although most of these characters have something fascinating to add to the story. Würger certainly seems most comfortable following not only Hans but Josh Hartley, perhaps The Club’s primary antagonist and perpetrator of evil. Hans oscillates between sensitivity, naïvety, intelligence and ignorance throughout, the lasting damage of his parents’ death deftly evident. Würger takes a big risk, though, in giving so much narrative space to Josh, but almost everything about the character is surprising. He is undoubtedly amoral, a calm and calculating in knocking down everything in his path, yet he is entertainingly eccentric and flamboyant.
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For much of the novel, Hans and Josh are inexplicably drawn to each other.
In fact, one of the more intriguing situations in the story is Hans’ hesitance to betray Josh who is made just charming and interesting enough for us to understand why Hans might be desperately searching for a redeeming quality in him. (It evokes Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York, wherein Leonardo DiCaprio’s character struggles to exact revenge for his father’s murder against the surprisingly human Bill the Butcher, played by Daniel Day-Lewis.) It adds a bold and risky layer of complexity to the novel.
A few other characters add to the story––in small doses––as narrators, such as Billy and the murky Angus Farewell, but others don’t provide much more than exposition. Even so, the pages turn quickly, regardless of who’s telling the story.
Where Würger’s novel really distinguishes itself is in its exploration of the Club. While Aunt Alex keeps Hans in the dark about the nature of the club’s “conspiracy” and “criminal activities,” creating the illusion of espionage of earth-shattering scope to their operations, the truth when revealed is much more pedestrian yet horrific.
How firmly The Club grasps the potential of its thematic complexity can vary, but the novel ultimately proves as compelling as its robust cast of the characters.