The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban

The Tragedy Paper

Duncan Meade is more apprehensive than excited about starting his senior year at Irving School. As a senior he gets his own room at the elite boarding school at last, but which room will it be? No one wants the poky, dark room wedged into the corner. Also, each room comes with a ‘treasure’ left by the previous occupant; it could be almost anything and who’s to say how appreciated it will be. Duncan is carrying some serious baggage from the previous year, but he seems to the only one troubled by it. His friends are acting normally, but Duncan is definitely having trouble keeping it together. It’s no surprise that he gets the worst room, and a very strange treasure left behind by the previous boy to live in that room.

One year previously, Tim Macbeth was just about to start a new life at Irving. So far his life had pretty much sucked, but a new school held out the opportunity for a new start for him. Despite being understandably nervous he was feeling pretty good about spending his remaining schooldays there. There was the small matter of a solo journey first – and that’s where it all began. Duncan gets to hear Tim’s story from start to finish in his own words, because Tim was the student in the corner room before him and he’s left him a box of CDs.

The ‘then’ of Tim’s and ‘now’ of Duncan’s narrative slowly combine together, as it becomes obvious that they were both involved in some tragic event that still colours Duncan’s experience. The what and how are only revealed very gradually. We know from the beginning that Duncan is still suffering, and as Tim talks to him Duncan becomes more and more obsessed with hearing him tell his version of events. Occasionally Duncan takes something positive from what he’s hearing, but most of the time I felt the tale was an albatross around his neck – something he would be condemned to carry forever.

I think I felt that way because I found it very hard to like to Tim. He hasn’t had it easy at school admittedly, and his life is difficult because he is albino. The constant staring and double takes are hurtful and wearing. But, I thought he allowed being albino to define him completely, which irritated me. He’s smart and kind, a thoughtful young man, and he has a lovely mum and stepdad who both think the world of him. He’s given the opportunity to go to a really good school, and I can’t help but think he behaves like an idiot. He likes a girl he thinks is out of his league, she is sometimes nice to him and sometimes not. Actually, she’s a total queen bee, picking him up and dropping him down as it suits her. Tim’s pathetically grateful for any crumb of attention. I know I’m being harsh but I was nearing the point of yelling at him to take a look around and find some nice friends. My irritation with him was increased because I thought that he was sucking Duncan into a dark place, and I wasn’t sure what his intention was in leaving these CDs. I didn’t trust Tim, his self-pity and blinkered outlook made me very suspicious.

What I liked about the book was the way the two stories within it dovetail with the senior year project set by the English teacher Mr Simon. Each student has to write their own Tragedy Paper, examining the nature of tragedy in literature. It’s a big deal, and for some students takes on a life of its own. The book also touches on the arcane nature of rituals and rites required to properly participate in the inner circle of old elite institutions. There’s a lot of hoop-jumping required and if you don’t know the rules already it’s too late to learn them. Whenever I read any American High School fiction I’m always horrified by the many cliques and social strata. It’s a while since I was at secondary school here, but it’s certainly vastly different to anything I’ve experienced.

I did enjoy this book and wanted to find out what the big secret was; it is big and tragic and a bit shocking. My reservation about it is that I didn’t understand why Tim’s behaviour changed so dramatically. He goes from being a straight A student, close to his mum and generally respectful to something else entirely. The only motivation I can see is having a thing for Vanessa, and if he can change that much because he likes a girl then he’s a bit of loser. Sorry Tim –  but I do love that his surname is Macbeth, I guess he was never destined an easy ride in life.

Thank you so much to the guys at Doubleday for sending me a copy of this book to review.

2 thoughts on “The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban”

  1. I thought Tim was an idiot too. But then, retrospect and an external perspective are all very well. The Tragedy Paper project was what drew me to the book but I had hoped it would be more 'central' than an obsession with a girl. I agree with you about the cliques and social strata in schools. I'm not aware of experiencing anything so deliberate like that either. Perhaps that means I was in – or really, really so far out.


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