Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

Review by Annabel, 25 February 2020

Anyone who works in a school will, these days, be familiar with ‘lockdown’ procedures, with code reds being the ones you hope you’ll only ever have to practice; the make yourselves as invisible as you can to an intruder ones. Lupton’s latest novel takes such an awful situation, placing it into an English school and she runs with it from the start to the finish of the siege, which takes three hours from the moment that a shot is fired on that snowy winter morning. It begins:

9.16 a.m.

(…) It smashes the glass case on the wall by the headmaster’s head, which displays medals for gallantry awarded in the last World War to boys barely out of the sixth form. Their medals turn into shrapnel; hitting the headmaster’s soft brown hair, breaking the arm of his glasses, piercing through the bone that protects the part of him that thinks, loves, dreams and fears; as if pieces of metal are travelling through the who of him and the why of him. But he is still able to think because it’s he who has thought of those boys, shrapnel made of gallantry, tearing apart any sense he’d once had of a benevolent order of things.

He’s falling backwards. Another shot; the corridor a reverberating sound tunnel. Hands are grabbing him and dragging him into the library.

Cliff Heights School is set on the coast in rural Somerset, a progressive, independent day school offering education from Reception through to Sixth Form. Situated on a large site bordered by woods to one side, a private path down the cliffs to the beach on another, the school is a rambling collection of buildings: New School, Old School, Junior School, the new Theatre block and so on, and as the siege starts, the pupils are spread throughout it. In particular, the Sixth Form Drama Students are in the Theatre, ready to begin their dress rehearsal of Macbeth. Two of them are missing – Jamie had gone to get a prop from CDT (Craft, Design & Technology), he should be safe in New School, but no-one knows where Rafi is, and teacher Daphne Epelsteiner is worried:

She has a huge soft spot for Rafi, nearly all of them do; everything he’s been through, and that smile and quick intelligence. Those liquid dark eyes, like a gazelle. Extraordinary, kind, beautiful boy. But he’s survived a boat in a storm and people smugglers; he has survived Assad and Daesh and Russian bombers, for heaven’s sakes; of all these children, the adults too, he knows how to look after himself.

Rafi and his younger brother are refugees from Syria, brought to the UK by the headmaster Mr Marr who volunteered during summer holidays. Rafi is in the woods on his way to the Junior School to see his little brother Basi whose PTSD is set off by falling snow, when an explosion goes off nearby. It’s around 8.38 when his happens. He phones it into the Head’s office, and with other teachers reporting a bang, they take it seriously and initiate the School’s emergency plan; amber at first … the local police are notified. A quick decision is made to evacuate Junior School anyway, and it goes from there.

As things escalate with the shooting of the headmaster, Lupton cleverly gives us little insights into the main perpetrator’s mind – but not his identity and only enough to raise the tension even more.

Inside half an hour after the Head is shot, the Police have established an emergency control centre and cordons under the command of DI Rose Polstein, and a holding centre for parents who naturally all make a beeline towards the school as soon as the news goes out. Those in hiding are faced with seeing their mobile and laptop charges dwindling, communications becoming more difficult. Meanwhile, the students in the concrete and windowless theatre block decide to continue with rehearsing Macbeth, a play of immense significance throughout this novel. It is truly nail-biting!

The best, and worst, thing in this novel is that the whole scenario is so very plausible indeed. Lupton has done her homework thoroughly; I’ve been on a seminar about school emergency plans and the levels of detail in the School’s actions and the police reactions are as I would expect – tailored to the school’s layout and location of course. Who would do a thing like this? Why? Lupton engages us in taking a hard look at increasingly polarized attitudes in the world today, the rise of nationalism and radicalisation, which taken to extremes will lead to acts of political terrorism. As we learn more about the potential suspects, I was shocked to the core, and forced to consider the question of how well you can ever know someone?

Unfolding through multiple voices, including the Head, Rafi, the drama teacher, DI Polstein, some of the parents who feel helpless, and not forgetting the gunman, the seconds tick by and the air of menace rises. Reading this book was so initially unsettling that I paused at the end of Part One, about eighty pages in, resuming with Part Two, which begins with the arrival of the police team at 09.38. I then read through to the end in one go, breathing a sigh of relief, although tinged with sadness, as the end came. The plotting was superb in this thoroughly gripping psychological thriller.

You may question whether such a siege could happen here in the UK with our strict controls on gun and explosives. It should be hugely more difficult, yes, but not impossible I suspect, which is why schools and other vulnerable sites and institutions have lockdown procedures.

Annabel is one of the Shiny editors, where a version of this review first appeared.

Rosamund Lupton, Three Hours (Viking, 2020). 978-0241374498, 320 pp., hardback.

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One thought on “Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

  1. This book… would piss me off. But I hope it becomes a best seller an scares the bejeezus out of Americans.

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