A Cryptic Tale of Danish Adolescents

LAST year, a novel with the very odd title of ``Smilla's Sense of Snow'' seemed to appear out of nowhere (it came from Denmark, actually) and take the book world by snowstorm.

Author Peter Hoeg's tale of a mysterious, intelligent woman who wouldn't let the death of a child rest, ``Smilla's Sense of Snow'' fascinated readers, and with good reason. It had everything and then some: Fresh, eerily frigid locations (Denmark and Greenland), a dense, philosophical attitude, and an absolutely rip-roaring plot.

Fans have been eagerly waiting and wondering what Hoeg would come up with next. What sort of dazzling, different book would he create? The answer is his new novel, ``Borderliners,'' and it's different, all right - and totally disappointing.

``Borderliners'' is the grim, almost laughably cryptic tale of adolescents at a Danish boarding school. It's narrated by a young boy named Peter, who is seen as ``a wretch, a borderline case, a confirmed liar.'' He is being given one last chance to redeem himself at the supposedly prestigious Biehl's Academy in Copenhagen.

The very first sentence of the novel is ``What is time?,'' which pretty much sums up the tone of the whole book. The rest of the novel seems to be an experiment on Hoeg's part to see just how much time a 277-page novel can appear to encompass.

At school, Peter is obsessed with time: its definition, its uses, its power, its meaning. What is the difference between circular and linear time? Why was every activity, from washing to eating to sleeping, measured and timed?

He muses: ``No explanation of time was ever given. But one knew that it was enormous, bigger than anything mortal or earthly. That one had to be on time was not just out of consideration for one's schoolmates and oneself and the school. It was also for the sake of time itself. For God.''

In between passages of time, and about time, we find that Peter is befriended by an older girl, the enigmatic Katarina, who has lost her parents and wants to know why the school is so rigidly structured. And then Peter is put in charge of a new student, August, who has killed his parents after years of abuse.

Understandably enough, Peter and Katarina want to know why August is at such a lofty school as Biehl's. They soon discover there is a hidden plan involving all of them.

The facts of the situation - the inherent powerlessness of children at the hands of adults - elicit a certain sympathy, and yet the reader must work even for that. It's as if Hoeg has tried to strip his narrative down to its very skeleton: Here are facts, here are thoughts, now make something emotional out of them if you must.

In addition, there is almost no movement, as ``Borderliners'' crawls along in small, vague paragraphs that almost always revert back to the subject of time.

Hoeg is undeniably talented. Perhaps he read all the reviews praising his first novel as a ``psychological thriller'' and then forgot about the ``thriller'' part in this second book.

``Borderliners'' is the sort of novel you feel you're supposed to appreciate, to savor for its bleak, powerful honesty. But unless you have a lot of time on your hands (both circular and linear), it's one to forget, and hope Hoeg strikes a better balance next time.

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