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Published by Quartet Books ISBN 978-0-7043-7215-3

mr coles coverSimon Astaire’s third book is tighter and more textural than his two previous novels. However, Mr Coles shares similarities with Private Privilege and And You Are? in that once you start reading it, it is un-put-downable, and darkly entertaining.

Mr Coles is an original novel exploring the nature of child abuse from inside the confines of a boys prep school. We are drawn into the covert practice of teachers using the children in their care for their own gratification.

The titular character is a drunken soak, sexually obsessed with several of his pre-pubescent pupils, one boy in particular, and starts the rotten process of grooming them. The poison pedagogy handed down by Mr Coles to his victims seeps into the school like a creeping sickness.

This intriguing story illustrates that the perpetrators of sexual abuse are often victims too. Mr Coles is sexually harassed by the Headmasters wife in ways that are repugnant to him.  Yet, he feels powerless over her repeated advances, just as his students are powerless over him.
Astaire takes you on a multi-layered journey of the mind, body and soul. We learn through his first person narrative the ways of an alcoholic as we share in Mr Coles's queasy daily rituals and denials, which are infused with blood, sweat, tears, spit, piss and vomit.  He is a seething mass of obsessions; irascible, rude, and driven by a naked ambition to be the Headmaster of all the boys he surveys. His sordid reality is only somewhat constrained by the routine of the academic day.

We live with Mr Coles in the wilds of Norfolk where he is the lone wolf staying on in the school holidays to sniff the sheets of little boys gone away to their parental homes for Christmas.  Prowling the neighbourhood, he lyrically attunes to his solitude, “A nun passed as I walked to the school.  I touched her with my eyes and believed she blushed.  Avalanches of melting snow fell from the rooftop and released a thud.  No other sounds, no one to be seen, the only sound was the thawing snow.”

The reader travels on from Norfolk, to London, and to Oxford as witness to the dark compulsions acted out with nameless strangers encountered on the way and are held in suspense wondering when the parents of Mr Coles' most desired boy "D" will discover his unhealthy intentions after tricking them into an invitation to their summer retreat in Cannes.

Of course, Mr Coles has shades of Thomas Mann’s novella and film Death in Venice (1971), where an older man becomes obsessed with the youth and beauty of a young boy he meets on holiday at a point when his own vigour is slipping away.

However, this story is not about harmless voyeurism. The nauseous, sweaty desire for young flesh is actualised and the pederast is unaccountable for his actions to anyone accept his own grotesquely twisted moral conscience.

Ultimately, Mr Coles is about a man’s undoing of both himself and his innocent victims within a shamefully complicit community.  It uncovers the cycle of the perpetuation of child abuse that goes on undetected, unlistened to, unresolved and unacknowledged. What was done to him, Mr Coles is doing to others.

This novel doesn’t offer solutions to these complex and poorly understood problems, but it does offer original insights into these issues.  Mr Coles is dedicated to those who have suffered and were unable to tell anyone.   The result is not a comfortable read, however, it is a compelling one.

A version of this review was also published in Plectrum, the Cultural Pick online in 2011