If you’ve had a normal childhood, there have to have been times when you’ve been convinced that your parents were sadists with a single-minded devotion to making your life as miserable as possible. If you’re a character in Payal Kapadia’s Horrid High series, this isn’t a petulant fantasy but a distinctly horrid reality. This second book, Horrid High: Back to School, continues the saga of horridness.
Horrid High is apparently a place that horrible parents send their (sometimes equally horrible) kids. This once-ghastly school has, though, since the first book, had a miraculous makeover. Under the new principal Granny Grit, the hitherto neglected and tormented children are now well cared for and happy. However, this newfound happiness is but temporary, as scheming teachers and a pair of identical twins wreak havoc.
Well-written absurdist fiction can be delightful, irrespective of age, and which ten-year-old wouldn’t love a general round of school-bashing, and ridiculing teachers and rules, not to mention parents? However, Horrid High: Back to School has none of the finesse of, say, Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket/Series of Unfortunate Events books.
The main problem is that the execution of the horridness/absurdity is hackneyed and simplistic. Right from the names of the characters, to the setting. Take the names: Ferg Gottin (a kid who’s parents would like to forget him); Fermina Filch (who filches things); Phil Fingersmith (a lockpicker, now reformed); Immy Tate (who can imitate voices); Tammy Telltale (who… oh figure it out yourself); Nita Notynuff (maths teacher with an inferiority complex); Dr Bloom (plant-mad science teacher); Fredo Fracas (the idiosyncratic cook); and – believe it or not – Volumina Butt (a large-sized kid, who is the school bully and terrorizes her schoolmates by – wait for it – sitting on them; we’ll come back to this one later).
Moreover, the plot is convoluted and obscured by too many contrived subplots inserted only to aid a final resolution. It starts slow and stutters in places, dragging out what could have been a fun 200-page novel into a ponderous 320 pages. There are some ridiculously slapstick scenes that show promises of hilarity but don’t quite hit the mark. It all culminates in a climax that could have been rip-roaring had this been a tightly written story. Horrid High: Back to School references the first book, Horrid High, to such an extent that it makes it difficult for the former to stand on its own. There are repeated references to events that occurred in the first book, which are annoying to say the least. For instance, the Grand Plan, which we were much tantalized with in the first book but never really told what it was, is finally explained, but you’re not so sure why you should care.
The use of stereotypes to drive humour is hardly new, but it is lazy and trite, and sometimes objectionable. Such as Volumina Butt. This is wrong on so many counts that one doesn’t know where to start. To make someone’s size their main character trait is horribly misguided and a few mentions of how terrible it is to be called fat doesn’t make it better.
Finally, what keeps you from really connecting with the story is a lack of a sense of setting. One feels that Payal Kapadia missed an opportunity to create something that was truly unique to the Indian children’s writing space, rather than this vaguely Western-sounding set-up. It did not necessarily have to be Indian, but it could have been original.
There is some real humour in the book, but the writing style grates in places, where the similes and descriptions are overdone. As is the ick-factor with frequent mentions of pee, poo, snot and bad breath, which is more likely to thrill a seven-year-old rather than the older kid the book is meant for. However, the one thing that the author does get right is the interactions between the kids, their conversations and their relationships. Roger Dahl’s illustrations are a welcome break from the pages of text, but they are too few and far between. His dark, creepy drawings add to the atmosphere, and the crows that separate the chapters and sections are a nice touch.
Indian children’s fiction is missing some truly inspired, original, literary nonsense/absurdist writing, and with a bit of effort, Horrid High could have been it. With such variety of homegrown writing being published today, is it too much to expect a modern-day Sukumar Ray who could deliver some intelligent absurdism for kids? As it stands, Horrid High: Back to School might raise a few laughs for the middle-grade reader – if they have the patience to sit through it.
By Shireen D.
Author: Payal Kapadia
Illustrator: Roger Dahl
Penguin Books, 2015
Subject category: Contemporary/Series/Fiction