Inventing Elliot is not a cheerful book; it is not a simple book; but it is an important book.
In his debut novel, Britisher Graham Gardner captures the engulfing fear endured by adolescents who are singled out for persecution by their peers, the stratagems these young victims employ in often futile attempts to minimize their vulnerability, and the hollow resignation -- the loss of innocence, really -- required to bear their emotional and, perhaps, physical pain.
The novel has been translated into numerous languages and garnered prizes in three countries. By inventing Elliot, Graham Gardner has made an important contribution to serious teen literature.
Elliot Sutton is entering Holminster High, an elite private academy, and his third school in 12 months. Upon arrival at his previous school, Elliot had been immediately singled out for intense bullying.
Elliot sees in Holminster a chance to re-invent himself, to learn to walk the thin but safe line between sticking out in the crowd and blending in too much.
But despite its academic and architectural sheen, Holminster is no safer than Elliot’s middle school. Male students are terrorized by the Guardians, a secret student society that systematically metes out random, public punishments to casually selected victims.
Elliot vigilantly plies his strategy. He hovers on the fringes of school society; he succeeds academically without calling attention to his success; he remains generic, anonymous. It seems to work until, one day, he is called to appear before the Guardians.
To his surprise, he is not victimized by the Guardians -- not in the way he expects. Instead, a Guardian identifying himself as Richard invites Elliot to join their circle, to become one of the puppeteers pulling the strings of arbitrary persecution at the school.
Elliot has the innate qualities of the superior class, says Richard. He has the savvy to wield power while seeming to stand apart. The Guardians, Richard explains, draw their philosophy from George Orwell’s 1984:
The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.
Elliot knows, of course, that if he does not accept Richard’s “invitation” to join the oppressors, becoming fully complicit in the malicious system, he will surely become the Guardians’ next target.
Gardner’s storytelling never lags. We are always learning about Elliot and his world, and eager to learn more. Through realistically complex characters, incisive narration, and emotionally nuanced dialog, we not only understand Elliot’s dilemmas, we feel them just as he does.
Elliot is a psychologically rich character, and a perceptive analyst of the social structures surrounding him. Personal relationships, however, bewilder him. By chance, he begins an uncomfortable friendship with Ben, one of the Guardians’ customary victims. Then he is befriended by a girl from his English class who understands Orwell’s 1984 far better than his mentor, Richard, does. These relationships disrupt Elliot’s carefully constructed emotional and intellectual equilibrium.
The book does takethe reader down some dark paths. Elliot’s disabled father is emotionally and intellectually disengaged. Richard introduces Elliot to a worldview justifying evil for its own sake. There is a brief flirtation (not graphic, but clear) with sexual exploration, as troubling to its participants as it is to readers. And throughout the story, Elliot disconnects himself emotionally from his work-worn, overburdened mother.
What, then, makes this an important book? This: Gardner has fashioned a painfully realistic tale that, without ever slipping into the trite or saccharine, culminates in an important lesson. The book’s resolution hinges on unconditional love, and Elliot’s realization that he -- and, by extension, young people generally -- need not face the traumas of life alone. There are adults who care, who will stand with you, who will share the burdens—an important truth missing from many books and films about children.
With its unrelentingly oppressive atmosphere, and the dark avenues Elliot begins to wander, this book is not for all adolescents. Parents and teachers should read it in its entirety before deciding to recommend it to their children or students. Then they may choose to read it along with a child -- a rich family activity too seldom practiced today -- perhaps prompting valuable conversations about the traumas of teen life. Since the book includes no faith perspective, this will also provide an opportunity for Christians to discuss the challenges of relying on God’s grace -- and offering it to others -- in the face of unjust circumstances.
Gardner is a talented storyteller, combining a compelling plot with psychologically sophisticated characters. He is reportedly working on a second novel. It’s hard to imagine it not being worth reading. Inventing Elliot certainly is.
Image copyright Speak, an imprint of The Penguin Group. Review copy obtained from the reviewer's local library.
Jay Sappington is a bioethicist, musician, educator, and former missionary to Africa who is passionate about encouraging young people to explore the arts. A native of Virginia, he lives near Washington, D.C., and is co-authoring a fantasy novel for young readers.
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