Christopher Swann’s debut novel, Shadow of the Lions, begins with a mystery. Matthias Glass, a senior at The Blackburne School in Virginia, has a bitter argument with his best friend, Fritz Davenport. Fritz runs into the woods surrounding the campus and disappears, a mystery that remains unsolved despite the efforts of local, state, and federal investigators. Nine years later, his career as a novelist sputtering, Matthias accepts a post as an English teacher at Blackburne. At first he feels ambivalent about returning to a place that contains such painful memories, but as the year progresses he feels compelled to find answers about his friend’s disappearance.
An isolated boarding school proves to be an apt setting for this literary thriller, the kind of exclusive atmosphere that’s typical of classic British murder mysteries. Behind the impressive Colonial architecture and immaculate grounds, faculty and staff endeavor to maintain Blackburne’s high standard for honor, expunging unsightly blemishes from its noble image. The idyllic campus, with its own golf course and a “green wall of trees shimmering in the near distance,” is a paradise ripe for downfall. Blackburne students (like students everywhere) outwardly ascribe to the school’s ethical dogma while privately seeking ways to rebel. To outsiders, the school appears intimidating, starting with the statues of lions guarding the main entrance, but closer inspection reveals flaws. One of the stone lions is missing an eye, a symbolic indication of Blackburne’s blind spots.
Within this exclusive enclave, class plays a central role and not only in the subtle gradations of the haves and the have-mores. Star athletes get special treatment, while the headmaster’s son pretends he is just one of the guys. Matthias, whose father is a pediatrician in Asheville, was raised in bourgeois comfort, but he feels like a nobody compared to the wealth and prestige of the Davenport family. During their final conflict, Matthias implies that Fritz doesn’t have to worry about his future because he’ll always have his family to fall back on. Matthias comes to learn that being born into affluence can be as much a curse as a blessing.
Matthias narrates the story, alternating between the events leading to Fritz’s disappearance and his own experiences as a teacher. Being at Blackburne forces him to confront his guilt for having concealed crucial details regarding the afternoon Fritz ran away. After betraying his best friend, Matthias wonders “how much self-deception one had to practice in order to live a lie.” Swann suggests that Matthias finds some solace in writing fiction, a field that rewards telling lies, but his conscience still gnaws at him. He needs to solve the mystery in order to expel the ghosts of his past and, perhaps, return unencumbered to the business of telling stories.
Shadow of the Lions is masterful in the way it builds suspense through character. As Matthias digs up clues about Fritz, he deepens his understanding of himself and the school community. Crucially, after years of unsuccessfully trying to bury the past, he gains a new respect for the power of the truth. When a Blackburne administrator argues that “Some truths are best left uncovered,” Matthias is outraged. “Lying, omitting the truth, whatever you want to call it, it’s just wrong,” he says.
The time-jumping structure of the novel enables Swann to depict the perspectives of both student and teacher in one character. As a student at Blackburne, Matthias enjoys “unpacking” poetry in his AP English class, closely examining the verse of Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas. When he is on the other side of the desk, he discovers that his sophomores (“fourth formers,” in Blackburne parlance) resist making the effort required to appreciate poetic subtleties. In class, his students “sat in a sort of numb acceptance, as if they were on Novocain,” but when pushed are capable of remarkable insight. Matthias comes to realize that high-school boys, who appear as savage and simple as juvenile grizzlies, often possess hidden depths.
Aside from its subject—the kidnapping of a journalist in Latin America—Swann provides little detail about the novel that brought Matthias temporary fame. But the book’s title, The Unforgiving, indicates the state of the author’s subconscious when he was writing it. Packed with references to influential works of literature, the narration of Shadow of the Lions nonetheless moves swiftly, pausing occasionally for the writerly flourishes one expects from a literary novel. When Matthias describes how his relationship with Fritz’s twin sister Abby was doomed, he makes it clear that the “problem wasn’t her. It was the person who was supposed to be there, who had been swallowed up by that belt of trees surrounding Blackburne, who in his absence had become the dark matter of my personal universe, mysteriously exerting his effect on me in ways I hadn’t thought possible.”
Swann, who attended a Virginia boarding school and now teaches in Atlanta, knows his material well and marshals it to good effect. Shadow of the Lions offers a gripping mystery while exploring two fundamental questions that drive fiction: how do good people make bad decisions, and how can they learn to live with the repercussions?
Sean Kinch grew up in Austin and attended Stanford and the University of Texas. He now teaches English at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville.