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Class and Cloister: A Review

It’s a rare, but nevertheless, exciting day when we at The Saint are approached about a book review. Even more rare is when the author is a real-life alumnus, and the book is a homage to St Andrews in all its glory. Naturally, I jumped at the chance.

Some background: Murtagh McDonald has been busy compiling the correspondence of a group of St Andrews students and their nearest and dearest from the 1980s. From lovable rogue Julian Arnaud to Fife’s answer to Sebastian Flyte Caspar Dixon-Bailey, each character is vividly and (somewhat terrifyingly) realistically rendered. The novel charts their time at St Andrews through letters, from those struggling to get to grips with university following a shadowed life at boarding school, to those struggling to get to grips with the absurdities obnoxious public school crowd.

It is perhaps, a Herculean task to write such an intimate novel about the lives of university undergraduates. After all, doesn’t every student like to think, at one point or another, that they are totally and perfectly unique? That their experience has been like no other? That their specific combination of deadlines, extra-curriculars, and friendship drama has never been seen before? It would be very easy, then, for the novel to be reductive. For the comically stereotypical students to be written somewhat patronisingly, and for the intrinsic naivety of the early days of the student experience to be sneered at. Instead, McCormick’s characters all seem totally genuine. Not one of them would be out of place on the second floor of the Main Library, desperately trying to get their 3,000 words written before escaping to the safety of the pub.

Even though Class and Cloister’s undergraduates graced Sallies nearly forty years ago, they’re still recognisable. Their concerns are the same, from grappling with faith and sexuality, to the question of what exactly it is they are doing here. Their new friendships are made in that same, cringe-worthy way that every Fresher experiences when bumping into a stranger in their corridor on the first day. Their changing relationships with their parents, too, are familiar. Above all, the novel, at its core, embraces St Andrews for all its quirks — the weird obsession we St Andreans seem to have with our beloved university is absolutely palpable on each and every page. A touching and heartwarming tribute to life in St Andrews, McCormick perfectly captures the complexities of being a student. A must-read, indeed.

Illustration: Sarah Knight

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