I received an advance copy of this novel from the publisher, Simon and Schuster, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I have a weakness for dark academia novels, though they only work for me roughly half the time. In recent years I’ve read books in this subgenre that have become lifetime favorites, and those that left me so disappointed it veered into anger. More than one of these disappointments came through books I requested via NetGalley, and yet I keep trying. Books like The World Cannot Give are why. I was almost as enamored by it as I was by Tartt’s The Secret History and Hopen’s The Orchard, both of which I absolutely adore.
I’ve read dark academia novels set around groups of classics students, but never around a choir. The addition of music as an important element of the novel evoked in me a taste of that joy Laura pursues so fervently. As did the religiosity early on in the novel. I think the last book I read with this level of spiritual depth was The Orchard by David Hopen. (Which I highly recommend, by the way.) It was fascinating watching as these students changed, for better or worse, and how those changes impacted their passions. And it was devastating to watch everything fall apart, even though I was expecting it.
Laura, our perspective character, is a girl completely infatuated with big emotions and anything that can produce them. She yearns for nothing more than a “shipwreck of the soul,” as defined by Samuel Webster, the writer of her favorite novel. When her family finally agrees to let her attend St. Durstan’s, the alma mater of her aforementioned favorite novelist who died at the tender age of nineteen, Laura is ecstatic. On campus she attends her first mandatory Evensong service and is immediately overwhelmed by the beauty of the music. After a few rocky attempts, Laura manages to introduce herself to Virginia, the lone girl in the choir and its unequivocal leader. Laura is immediately transfixed and gives Virginia every ounce of loyalty and devotion within her, which over the course of the novel seems like a nearly bottomless well. Laura finds herself becoming the second female member of the choir, an entrenched part of their select and secretive group, and loving every minute of it.
I loved the addition of Bonnie as someone who was obsessed with the dark academia aesthetic without having any understanding of depths it could hide. She serves as a brilliant counterpoint to Laura’s shy but wholehearted embracing of those depths, which itself serves as a brilliant counterpoint to Virginia’s fierce, fiery devotion and personality that either entrances or more often repels with no middle ground. Virginia has another counterpart in Isobel and her relentless tirade against God and tradition. Their personalities are similar in their surety of their own rightness and their willingness to stand for that belief no matter what it might cost them. I found Virginia endlessly fascinating, with her Crusader mentality and her firm belief in her own unerring rightness and her unusual, repellant charisma. There were even points later in the novel where she reminded me of Jay Gatsby as she grew more jaded.
These characters have such wild, larger-than-life plans but are so easily bogged down and distracted by the minutia of their everyday campus lives. Not to say that adults are any better about keeping our eyes on whatever prize we set before ourselves instead of getting lost in our routines. But Virginia and her cadre of choir boys and Laura all yearn to be World-Historical, a term coined by Samuel Webster, their hero and idol, in his one and only novel, All Before Them. Being a World-Historical person requires living with intentionality instead of floating through life, and seeking to do great things even when those things are difficult and painful and possibly fatal, if they mean changing the world in some way. These are big aspirations for teens, put before them by another teen who lived out what he preached by dying young for a cause he believed in. If that cause happen to be on the wrong side of history and morality, does that even matter when compared to his fervor? Virginia and Laura and the boys don’t think so.
Burton’s writing is excellent. I’m usually slightly weirded out by novels told in present tense, but it worked really well here. I felt like some hidden, parasitic secondary awareness within Laura’s mind, experiencing her life with her while also seeing some things she in her naivety didn’t catch. The discussions of religion and music came from a different worldview than my own, and thus gave me a lot of food for thought even as I disagreed with them, especially the religious views. What’s even more interesting to me is that Burton herself holds a doctorate in theology and, while this is only her second novel, she has been widely published in the academic and journalism worlds. I could feel some of that prior writing here, as every single facet of this book, every scene and diatribe, felt incredibly necessary to the story. No words were wasted, while at the same time never feeling terse. I was also impressed by the fact that, after reading this book, I have no idea what Burton’s personal beliefs are. It would have been so easy for her to use a story so religious in natural as a pulpit, but she never did. I did not once feel as if she were preaching or trying to draw opinions toward any specific beliefs or tenets.
The World Cannot Give is a deeply thoughtful addition to the dark academia subgenre. It does unsurprisingly go to some dark places, so be aware of that going in. But I found it insightful without proselytizing, raw without veering into emotional manipulation. The World Cannot Give is a well-balanced novel that I’ll be contemplating for a long time.
Expected publication date: March 8th, 2022
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