Friday, 16 March 2018

S.T.A.G.S, by MA Bennett

S.T.A.G.S is a prestigious, elite boarding school, founded when there were still three numbers in the year by a Saint that once made a stag turn invisible. Greer MacDonald, ordinary girl and film enthusiast has won a scholarship to study there for sixth form and after one term is finding herself lonely and isolated. She sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the old money student body, the kind that are all either minor royals or 25th generation minted, have family crests and heirlooms older than Hadrian’s Wall, and know what each of the 1,000 utensils are for at a formal table setting.

Needless to say she is baffled and curious when she receives an invitation to spend the Michaelmas weekend (October Half Term, for normal people) at Longcross, the ancient country pile of Henry de Warlencourt, the Country Life poster boy king of the school, for a weekend of Huntin’ Shootin’ and Fishin’. Despite apprehensions due to never having done any of these things before, Greer accepts, thinking that this is finally her being recognised as ‘One of them’, and a chance to get to know (and possibly join) the Medievals, the unofficial kings and queens of the school. Despite her Buzzfeed feminism, Greer still wants to fit in, something that she kind of despairs at herself for.

Togged up in very worn but obviously once expensive Country Clothes, think tweeds and Hunters, installed in one of the suites, Greer is surprised to discover that there are no adults on site, just some surly but incredibly compliant servants. Greer, Shafeen and Chanel, the other outsiders selected for the weekend are at the mercy of their gracious, generous hosts. Each of them is committed to ingratiating themselves, despite occasional derision and vicious attacks from the Medivals. As the three bloodsports, the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ take a very accident prone turn, it becomes increasingly apparent that the stags, the pheasants and the brown trout aren’t the only things being hunted.

I liked the idea of this novel, it was unique and it kept that question mark hovering over exactly what was going on- it reminded me of e. lockhart’s We Were Liars in that respect. In one instance because it’s a book about privileged white kids doing whatever the hell they want to and hang the consequences, but also because it dangles the truth just above the reader’s head the whole time. It’s there to see, but the prejudices and the hopes, the bias and the objectives of the narrator sort of conceal it. In this case, Greer and the ‘I think he likes me’ vibes she is picking up off Henry, lordling of the manor. Can somebody that charming, that friendly and someone so committed to showing her a good time be as evil as they suspect?

I liked how Shafeen, Nel and Greer grew closer through their plotting and their sneaking, developing more in the last third of the book than in the first parts. I feel like this was the first glimpse we got into the deeper workings of any of the nine characters. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but the three ‘Sirens’ and the two boys that weren’t Henry seemed pretty interchangeable.

I was not a fan of the tacked-on feeling ending and I felt that it needed just a little too much disbelief suspension to buy. Though it was an easy enough read, I found my attention drifting quite often. I quickly felt frustrated with the constant film references. I get that it was Greer’s *thing*, and that’s okay, I guess, but I think that particular pudding was marginally over-egged, with a reference on literally every other page. Like, it’s fine to make just a Hannibal Lecter reference. You don’t need to say Hannibal Lecter, from that film Silence of the Lambs. There is only one Hannibal Lecter, we know which one you mean. Assuming you are not an *actual* teen, in which case you probably haven’t seen Silence of the Lambs anyway, so never mind. I also thought that if this Michaelmas ritual had been going on for as long as suggested, maybe the perpetrators would be a bit better at *the objective*, rather than going about it in the half-hearted way that the Medievals demonstrate in the 2017 season. I didn’t feel that there was enough threat, no commitment to the actual cause, so the whole thing lacked the necessary tension…

All in all, it’s a bit of a mixture, is S.T.A.G.S. I really liked the combination of rich kids, boarding schools, privilege, class structure and cults, but I just felt that the whole book failed to deliver what it promised. I was expecting something more Until Dawn, with tension and desperation and gore. I like the insanity of the idea that people are too superior for the act of murder to affect them in terms of finance, morality or prosecution, it was very Rope. Or, as Greer would say, “Have you seen the Alfred Hitchcok film, Rope? Where a character considers himself to be so mentally superior that it makes him capable of pulling of a random, perfect murder? It was like that, but with a class motivation.”

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