The second of Danish writer Hoeg’s novels to be translated into English (following Smilla’s Sense of Snow) is a very different book. It tells the story of a trio of misfits at an elite boarding school who discover they are guinea pigs in a sinister social experiment. The only thing it has in common with Smilla is that they both are extraordinary novels.
In Borderliners, Hoeg portrays the closed world of Biehl’s, a Danish private school also attended by children of the upper classes, in the early 1970s. The narrator, Peter, is a student at Biehl’s after spending all of his life in children’s homes and reform schools. He is a borderline case.
Peter is a bit psychotic, and wrestles with the demons of anxiety and despair that “the absolutely normal pupils” around him can hardly guess at. He is drawn to Katarina, whose parents both died in the past year. And he feels a need to protect August, who is severely disturbed after killing his abusive parents. Together these three form a little band of misfits. They are “borderliners” because they have academic and social problems.
The three grow closer, Peter falls for Katarina, and they begin struggling to break free of the strange experiments in social Darwinism being performed at the school.
Peter Hoeg masterfully tells the tale of this provincial world of childhood, limited and claustrophobic, that leaves its stamp in the years to come. And for the three youths with a marginal status in Danish society, Biehl’s offers the only chance – an opportunity to succeed and go to the University. One which they are not inclined to accept.
Borderliners is clearly an autobiographical novel. Peter, the narrator, is 14. Later we learn that he is adopted by a family named Hoeg. Despite a number of differences, the novel reminds me of another autobiographical novel by a Scandinavian author, namely Evil by Swedish author Jan Guillou. They both describe tough circumstances encountered in private schools – one in Denmark, the other in Sweden. Both are haunting, to some extent surreal, and quite disturbing.
Borderliners is a wonderful book, at times difficult to read, but very rewarding. It is not nearly as accessible as Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and some of the excursions into the nature of time are hard to follow. But it is a book of considerable beauty, and a book that lingers in your head after you have finished it. At times the book is very moving. An unforgettable story and a worthwhile read!