The Starboard Seak, by Amber Dermont, Corsair, RRP£14.99/ St Martin’s Press, RRP$24.99, 320 pages
Amber Dermont’s debut novel is set in the summer of 1987, and we first meet Jason Prosper on his 18th birthday. He is, according to his father, “damaged goods” and the story opens with father and son driving together; Jason daydreaming about “the car flipping forward and crushing Dad’s body.” They are en route to Bellingham Academy, a boarding school specialising in second chances for the delinquent offspring of America’s elite. At Bellingham, Jason explains, “If you could pay, you could stay.”
Jason can’t forget his best friend, sailing partner and secret lover, Cal. It was Jason who discovered Cal’s body in the bathroom at their prep school, but the truth about the events that led to Cal’s death and Jason’s subsequent expulsion are withheld until the end of the novel.
Jason tries to fit in at his new school by joining the sailing club, only to quit after the first tryout ends with his sailing partner momentarily trapped under the water. He retreats, and befriends a girl called Aidan. The pair become lovers. When she disappears, Jason takes it upon himself to work out what has happened to her. Learning of Aidan’s fate, he feels “the waves of this new truth, this new loss crash over me”.
The sea is a constant presence, both physically and in the language used: Dermont’s passion is sailing, and the novel’s title, The Starboard Sea, is a made-up sailing reference. As Cal explains to Jason: “It means the right sea, the true sea, or like finding the best path in life.”
Dermont sketches Bellingham’s self-contained world of privilege with authority and ambitiously borrows characters and themes from Shakespeare: Jason Prosper and his lovers Cal and Aidan evoke Prospero and his servants Caliban and Ariel in The Tempest.
The Starboard Sea also exposes illusions of justice and power. At Bellingham fortune is fickle and power breeds cruelty: the Black Monday crash robs one student of her place at the school. As her dishevelled father comes to collect her in an old station wagon, Dermont writes: “She put me in mind of a fabulous hotel room some rock star had trashed.”
Meanwhile, the male students torture one another in ritual initiation rites that have been passed down through generations. Having been rolled up in a carpet and left out on a football field in the cold, Jason thinks only of revenge: “I can’t wait to get even. I can’t wait to do this to someone else.”
Dermont measures out the stories behind Jason’s twin tragedies coolly, without altering the pace of her well-crafted narrative.