- Three Hours, by Rosamund Lupton. Viking. $32.99.
Three Hours is best-selling British author Rosamund Lupton's fourth novel. Lupton, who studied English Literature at Cambridge, was a script-writer for television and film before becoming a novelist, after winning Carlton Television's New Writers' competition.
Three Hours begins with "a moment of stillness; as if time itself is waiting, can no longer be measured. Then the subtle press of a fingertip, whorled skin against cool metal, starts it beating again and the bullet moves faster than sound."
The bullet hits the Headmaster, Matthew Marr and from that moment there are three hours of terror for the staff and pupils of a small non-religious school in Somerset. Cliff Heights School is a liberal school without uniforms, no head boy or girl or prefects, where "every member of the school is equally valued and the children are respected by the staff as well as the other way round". It is an unlikely target for terrorists.
As snow falls and a blizzard hits, one gunman prowls the corridor of the Senior School, where students are trapped in classrooms and in the library with the injured headmaster. Another stands outside a remote pottery classroom filled with infants and their ceramics teacher. Both are armed with semi-automatics.
In the theatre, the drama teacher decides to proceed with a rehearsal of the school play, Macbeth, to distract her students knowing that the theatre is safe because "there are no windows for the bastards to shoot through", the walls are concrete and the fire doors are exceptionally strong. The play's exploration of evil will reflect the developing situation that threatens them all.
Lupton's characterisation reveals a profound understanding of the human spirit under intense pressure, as well as the teenage mind: from the young Detective Inspector Rose Polstein, an investigative forensic psychologist, tasked with predicting the gunmen's actions; to 17 year old Hannah trying to keep the headmaster alive in the library, telling herself to "be calm . . . get a grip", because her father has called her resourceful and brave; to her boyfriend Rafi Bukhari, a Syrian refugee rescued from France by Matthew Marr, searching for his eight-year-old brother lost in the snow in the school grounds; to Beth Alton, whose teenage son is missing. Her anxiety is palpable.
Three Hours is gripping and horrifying at the same time.
However, although this is a story of terror and terrorists, Lupton's underlying message is that love conquers fear and eventually triumphs over evil, no matter if it's the love of a brother, the love of a mother or the love of family.
It's a remarkable exploration of bravery and compassion.