ADVENT CALENDAR ’15: Re-reading ‘Freshers’

 

Freshers

Then: Thanks to my bizarrely selective memory, I can tell you exactly where I bought this, right down the book-shelf, but I can’t tell you when. The where is a second-hand bookshop in Lincoln, in sight of the cathedral, from a narrow bookcase directly inside the front door, practically on the street. As for when I bought this: not the foggiest. I would guess sixteen or so, but the important thing is that I read this book before I went to university. It tells the story of Kit, a young student at Leeds university. That’s effectively it: the book covers his efforts to fit in, the various friends he meets, and his eventual realisation that he suffers from depression. That last plot point arrives abruptly out of nowhere at the end without much in the way of preamble across the rest of the book; meanwhile, the rest of his friends are their own mess of issues and dramas.

At the time of reading, it leap-frogged directly into my favourite books list. Freshers was probably first amongst a handful of books I read that was pretty much just about people being people. The book was frank, funny, and more importantly, seemed like a promise of things to come.

Now: It’s a little over a decade on since I read the book, and in the meantime, I’ve been to university. Going back to re-read Freshers, I was half-expecting this to be the biggest let-down of my list, and that I would realise that the novel only managed to sound convincing if you were a young, naive reader who had never experienced any of what the book was about. I read a few reviews of the book, including one that completely eviscerates it in such a way that it’s hard not to simply hear a sense of sniffiness (and/or envy) that the book is about (ugh) students.

On re-reading, though, Freshers still works, and with the benefit of experience, I found it stuffed full of twinges of recognition: the awkwardness and fronting of first meetings; the borderline-absurd mechanics of redefining yourself; the exaggerations of the stories people tell about themselves; the grey days on the flip side of the reveling; the sense of both loving and not-quite-liking your peers; being both isolated and surrounded. The reviewer I mentioned might be right: everyone here is self-involved, confused and obnoxious, but if I recall, that sums up university students, and Freshers does a fair job of painting their foibles with a measure of insight. That said, the ‘reveal’ of Kit’s depression and the events that caused it, whilst they had far more foreshadowing that I caught in my first reading, do still seem to arrive abruptly, and as a finale is actually a less interesting issue than some of the other extraneous plot threads that are glossed over at the end. Still, though, Freshers was a surprisingly agile bit of storytelling that rang completely true to my own memories of university life, though there is every chance that any reader for whom the fun of recognition isn’t a part of the reading experience will still hate it.

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