Review of The World Cannot Give, by Tara Isabella Burton

Much joy in writing a school story comes of creating our own little world, giving it a local habitation and a name, and variegating it with distinctive customs and practices; great English Public Schools such as Eaton and Winchester even speak peculiar dialects. Tara Isabella Burton gives St. Dunstan’s, her co-ed prep school in Maine, many features of the traditional English boarding school that survive the transatlantic crossing, including replacing American-style semesters with terms, Michaelmas and Candlemas (the latter inauthentic—I’d prefer a combined Hilary-Easter Term). There are also dormitories called Latimer, Cranmer, and Keble – famous names in the history of the Church of England – as well as Mountbatten, Desmond, and Devonshire – an admiral, an archbishop, and a dukedom.

Burton’s previous novel Social Creature was a fantasia on the theme of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and I am even more delighted with this new novel in the line of succession to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. There, an outsider from California at a small New England college majors in Classics and finds himself emmeshed in an elite undergraduate set who not study Greek tragedy, they live it, with no limits and no regrets. Now in The World Cannot Give (see John 14:27), we have Laura Stearns from Henderson, Nevada, joining a singing group at Saint Dunstan’s school chapel. Their speciality is Anglican liturgical music, especially choral Evensong, under the sway of the strikingly charismatic girl Virginia Strauss, who proceeds to adopt Laura as a protégée and takes over her life. Though the author calls the singers a “choir,” it’s technically an ensemble: five boys, Virginia and Laura.

Laura chose to go to St. Dunstan’s drawn the legend of a former student in the 1930s, Sebastian Oliver Webster. He wrote a passionate lyrical novel entitled All Before Them (see Paradise Lost, 12. 645), then left school, converted to Roman Catholicism and died fighting for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. I cannot think of a real-life model for Webster, but he recalls such English Communists as John Cornford and Christopher Caudwell, whose deaths fighting on the Republican side inspired Kim Philby and the Cambridge spy ring. If we imagine Webster as a Jesus-figure, Virginia takes the role of Saint Paul, eagerly making converts. Webster’s followers, according to Virginia, should despise the “sclerotic modern world” and become “World-Historical” characters whilst eschewing “moral relativism.” For Virginia and her acolyte Laura, that entails Anglican ritual, studying Latin and philosophy, and early-morning long-distance running.

If you appreciate traditional Anglican ritual, you will enjoy the parts devoted to Evensong. This is the sung service of evening prayer, according to the Book of Common Prayer. My own favorite composers of English liturgical music are Thomas Tallis and William Byrd—ironically both were Roman Catholics—and Charles Villiars Stanford’s Magnificat in C – which Laura hears at chapel – was new to me and to my ear sounded a trifle slushy. I loved Laura’s response to hearing it, though. “It’s how they’re all singing different notes, that are also somehow all the same, it’s how they’re at once so grand and exultant, swelling up their chests on for he hath rejoiced, and also so soft when the line of the music dies; it’s how Laura can hear all their voices, irreducibly distinct from one another, and also how what Laura hears is a single sound, unbroken. . . .” I’ve felt the same hearing the Tallis Scholars rendering Byrd’s Magnificat in the Great Service. Throughout the story we find allusions to this anthem that begins “My soul doth magnify the Lord . . .” taken from Luke 1: 46-55, Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s news that she will be the mother of the Messiah. I wonder if the phrase “He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden” should be taken as an ironic commentary on this story.

As Burton has a theology degree from Oxford and writes nonfiction about religious and cultural topics, it is no surprise that her characters’ beliefs are derived from real, albeit somewhat esoteric, political and sociological theory. Virginia Strauss is portrayed as a Catholic Integralist, specifically an Anglo-Catholic Integralist, which is unusual, as most contemporary Integralist thinkers – such as Crean and Fimister, Vermeule, Deneen, Dreher, and the somewhat intellectually lighter Sohrab Ahmari – are Roman or Orthodox Catholic. Historically, though, their roster includes some real heavy-weights, T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and I’d include Simone Weil too. Some of the characters’ names – Strauss, Sterns, Anton (Laura’s oafish date for the Mayfair Ball) subliminally suggest rightist commentators, and Virginia’s intended internship at the American Institute of Civic Virtue makes one think of certain conservative think-tanks.

Ironically for an advocate of a Christian society, Virginia is actually Jewish, and is frustrated when the school chaplain, Reverend Tipton (most Anglican clergy hate to be called Reverend, preferring to be addressed as Father – or Mother) ignores her request to be baptized. When Virginia finds out that Reverend Tipton is looking for romance on Tinder, she sets up a clever revenge plot, one that also embarrasses Bonnie, Laura’s influencer roommate with 2000 followers who stole Virginia’s spot as first soprano. It’s a cruel but hilarious surprise for both, cleverly sprung by the author. But it also marks the point in the plot where Virginia’s fortunes turn downward.

Isabel Zhao is Virginia’s polar opposite at Saint Dunstan’s, a political radical and lesbian who organizes the student effort to abolish compulsory Friday Evensong and to topple the statue of “the fascist” Sebastian Webster, as well as drowning out Evensong by playing Black Sabbath over the school sound system. (Tastes differ; Capleton’s “Leave Babylon” is my epitome of diabolic noise.) When Virginia runs against her for student council president, she sets herself up for a nasty surprise.

As reviewer of a new book, I have to pass over the rest lest I spoil it for the reader. But I shall reveal that the denouement is deftly prepared although quite unexpected, and totally appropriate. It is terrifying, excessive, unjust – yet inevitable and right – the very essence of a tragic ending. How tragically ironic that a story about characters who believe in a Christian social order should be the victims a revenge tragedy, but imagine a twenty-first century schoolgirl as a Marlovian hero. That is how we might view Virginia, an over-reacher determined that nothing stand in the way of her quest to overcome the sclerotic contemporary world. Or is she simply a silly pretentious deluded teenager, without a tincture of common sense? Then Mary’s words respexit humilitatem ancillae form an ironic commentary indeed – Virginia one of the superbos mente cordis sui, the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

On the last page, we discover a passage from the prophet Isaiah, in a note Virginia wrote for Laura.

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49:16-18)

It alludes to God’s faithfulness toward Israel, but also to the blood pact Virginia and her followers swore to each other in the school chapel. Does the biblical reference condemn the ultimate blasphemy or is it a message of future hope? How we answer that question will tell us what kind of tragedy we have read. But whichever, I am immensely grateful to Tara Isabella Burton for letting us have a splendid and moving story, worthy to stand on the shelf with The Secret History.

I am most grateful to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for an ARC.

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